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Trying the Party for Wrongs by Mr. Wright

June 19, 1988|Richard E. Cohen | Richard E. Cohen covers Congress for the National Journal.

WASHINGTON — The knot has been tightening in the stomach of congressional Democrats.

In the days since House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) became the target of a formal ethics complaint, the party rank-and-file has shared a growing fear that this could become a problem larger than any single admittedly powerful lawmaker. The full-blown inquiry launched by the House Ethics Committee is a land mine threatening the way of life on Capitol Hill, where Democrats have held the majority in the House since 1955 and have run things pretty much their own way.

Common Cause and Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) sent separate letters to Ethics Committee Chairman Julian C. Dixon (D-Culver City), urging the panel to investigate Wright. They cited little more than newspaper articles--some of them aging--to support their arguments. But Wright and his fellow Democrats understand that a powerful politician can become very vulnerable and exposed once every detail in his life becomes fair game to investigators. If they had any doubts, Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III would gladly provide confirmation.

A probe of Wright is no ordinary matter. He is, by his own description, the nation's most powerful elected Democratic official. Beyond that, the charges that he has been too zealous in representing Texas savings-and-loan officials or friendly businessmen in his Fort Worth community strike fear in the hearts of colleagues. His alleged sins represent standard operating procedure for many of them in advocating constituents' interests. If Jim Wright is suddenly the target of a national political attack, what does that mean for them?

To Gingrich, the answer is clear. During his regular 6 a.m. walk from the Capitol to the Lincoln Monument one recent morning, he delivered a judgment in a matter-of-fact tone that only enhanced the effect. Most House Democrats, he said, are "corrupt thugs."

The Democratic machine, in the view of this history professor turned ethics-mongering politician and Republican strategist, is a mixture of "big city, big labor and loony-left politicians." Those machine members, he thinks, may be a minority of the House but they make up a majority of the Democratic Caucus and are therefore able to run the show. Gingrich adds that their route to corruption has been the use of incumbency tools--such as free mailings, ample staff salaries, special-interest honorariums and a few offices in their district--to make themselves immune back home from effective political challenge.

House Majority Whip Tony L. Coelho (D-Merced) calls Gingrich "bright but not politically shrewd." Nor do all Republicans disagree. Some of them think Gingrich himself may be a bit loony in challenging the Speaker and the accepted norms in Congress. But few of them would disagree that his complaint to Dixon will have a far more lasting impact than most of the legislation on the agenda this year. And House GOP leaders have supported Gingrich, both by urging the Ethics Committee to investigate Wright and by recently launching their own verbal barrage against what Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) has called "the broken branch of the federal government."

Gingrich may have the perfect foil in the combative Wright. Democratic observers think Wright has played into GOP hands by showing his anger at Gingrich and encouraging attacks on the Georgia Republican, by giving detailed denials to the charges and attempting to justify his own conduct and by allowing more charges to leak out on a nearly daily basis. They recall that Wright's predecessor, Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), benefited by ignoring partisan sniping from the Gingrich crowd. Republicans have been gloating in the belief they have finally found a way to deal with their Meese problem; the impact will soon be magnified because Wright is scheduled to be in full view as chairman of the Democratic Convention in Atlanta next month. Convention planners are faced with a dicey question: How prominent a role should Wright have, especially during prime-time television?

The next few weeks were supposed to be an upbeat period for Wright and the Democrats. Michael S. Dukakis, their certain nominee, has a comfortable lead in the polls while congressional Republicans treat Vice President George Bush as though the aroma of death has surrounded him.

Many Dukakis themes will be based on the legislative record built by Democrats since Wright took control of the House in 1987--issues such as plant-closing notification to workers, expanded Medicare coverage for the elderly, more money for roads and sewers. In succeeding O'Neill as Speaker, Wright has also tried to build a more moderate image of Democrats for voters in the South, a key election battleground.

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