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From an Icon to a Sleaze: Life and Death in the Polls : Ethics: In the Lincoln Savings debacle, Alan Cranston and other senators say they were protecting constituents' interests. That's not a defense, however--it's a condemnation of the system.

December 17, 1989|William Schneider | William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion

WASHINGTON — Politicians live and die by their approval ratings. That's why this month's Los Angeles Times Poll must have come as a terrible shock to Sen. Alan Cranston. His job rating among Californians went from 56% favorable in October to 58% unfavorable in December. Ratings like that mean almost certain political death.

Cranston narrowly won reelection in 1986 because he had the image of a hard-working and effective legislator devoted to the state's interests. Now, suddenly, he looks like a sleaze. His principal source of strength--his reputation for deal-making and fund-raising--have turned into a liability.

There is a fine line between helping your constituents and influence-peddling. Cranston allegedly crossed that line when he and four other senators intervened with federal banking regulators to protect a failing California savings-and-loan institution. Charles H. Keating Jr., the owner of the now-bankrupt Lincoln Savings and Loan Assn., had contributed $1.3 million to campaigns and political committees associated with the five senators. More than two-thirds of the money went to Cranston's organizations. The taxpayers are going to have to pay $2 billion to bail Lincoln out.

The senators have defended themselves by saying they were doing the same thing other legislators do--protecting the interests of their constituents. That's not a defense of the senators, however. It's a condemnation of the system.

In order to survive, members of Congress have to become independent political entrepreneurs. They cannot rely on any political party. They have to build their own political organizations and protect themselves by raising enormous quantities of money.

Alan Cranston is a master of political entrepreneurship. He excels at raising big money, doing big favors and making big deals. That's how he got elected to the Senate four times in a state where voter loyalties are notoriously fickle. That's also how he got elected majority whip by his Democratic colleagues. Congress worships effectiveness, and in that religion, Cranston is a god.

A lot of people criticize Congress for being insensitive to public opinion. They believe senators and congressmen get into trouble because they have no regard for the public's values and priorities. Actually, the problem is just the reverse. Congress is supersensitive to public opinion.

Members of Congress are obsessed with their favorability ratings. If they see their polls start to fluctuate, they get palpitations. If they see their negatives climb above 50%, they have heart attacks. (Cranston, however, is in top physical condition and swears he will survive the setback.)

Legislators cultivate an image of effectiveness by following two rules: Do everything possible to curry favor with the voters. And stay away from controversial issues; you might get nailed by your opponent. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, recently observed, "It's amazing how those 30-second ads, the Roger Ailes-Lee Atwater mentality, permeate the thinking of so many members."

Members of Congress do very well at staying elected. As one House member observed, "It's very difficult to envision any incumbent who really does his or her homework and who pays attention to the constituency and utilizes the opportunities made available to incumbents--ranging from franking privileges to staff and district offices--getting defeated."

Congress' legislative record is not so impressive, however. This year, for instance, Congress was totally incapable of making tough choices. Paralyzed by the fear of raising taxes, Congress passed a budget full of accounting gimmicks and across-the-board spending cuts. Under pressure from elderly voters, Congress repealed catastrophic health insurance, the only major new social program of the 1980s. Pressure from the investment community led the House to vote for a capital gains tax cut . Congress failed to pass child-care legislation because members couldn't figure out how to pay for it. The legislators did, however, pass bills to protect the American flag and restrict government subsidies for "obscene" art.

When it came to the issue of a pay raise, Congress mastered the art of blame avoidance. First the House tried to pass a pay raise without taking a vote. That did not sit well with the American public. So the House decided the pay raise was not such a good idea and voted it down in February.

Then in November, the House reversed itself and voted for a a pay raise but banned honorarium payments. They called this procedure "ethics reform." Just to be safe, however, leaders of the two parties made a deal with each other not to make an issue of the pay raise in next year's campaign. The Senate, in a display of abject political fear, voted not to take the pay raise. Just to be safe, however, senators kept their honorariums.

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