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Congress faces task of trying to polish its tarnished image

The House of Representatives, which acted quickly to censure two of its members for sexual misconduct, has probably done little to repair its public image.

''Regrettably the image of Congress has never been high,'' said House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. in a resigned tone. The Massachusetts Democrat expressed little hope that the censures voted Wednesday would help.

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''Congress has been the whipping boy of the American public,'' he said, adding that the body has been the butt of jokes from the likes of Will Rogers to Art Buchwald.

The final results of an exhaustive investigation begun last fall turned out to be far less devastating than predicted a year ago. At that time news reports carried sensational charges by two former House pages of widespread sex and drug activity among members and young pages on Capitol Hill.

The probe by the House Ethics Committee amassed volumes of testimony, but found ''no credible evidence'' of those charges. The two cases it did substantiate involved Rep. Daniel B. Crane (R) of Illinois and Rep. Gerry E. Studds (D) of Massachusetts. Mr. Crane admitted to involvement with a 17 -year-old female page three years ago, while Mr. Studds admitted to a homosexual affair with a male page 10 years ago.

In censuring the two, the House invoked a rarely used punishment that requires the member to stand before his peers in disgrace. Only 23 representatives have ever been censured, and nearly all of those came up during the 1800s.

But while the penalty was stiffer than the reprimand proposed by the Ethics Committee, the entire episode has severely damaged Congress in the public eye, according to political scientist Norman J. Ornstein.

''There isn't anything Congress can do, once a scandal is published, to assuage the public,'' says Dr. Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He blames the news media for publishing charges of the ex-pages, last summer, before they had been proved. Although the most outspoken former page later confessed to lying, the stage had already been set.

If the House had refused to investigate, it would have faced a barrage of criticism, Dr. Ornstein says. But when it punishes the guilty members, it merely confirms public cynicism about their lawmakers.

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''Built into our country is the notion that all politicians are crooks,'' says Dr. Ornstein. A longtime observer of Congress, he argues that members of Congress are no worse than others and are remarkably free of wrongdoing, considering their life styles.

While he concedes that some are at fault, he says it is more common for them to be ''workaholics.''

Of scandal, he says, ''There's still too much. I do not in any way excuse what Studds and Crane did.'' He notes that voters will have an opportunity to pronounce final judgment in next year's elections.

As Speaker O'Neill told reporters Thursday, the House has made an effort to oversee its members. ''We've tried so hard,'' he said. ''That's why we put the Ethics Act in.''

According to Dr. Ornstein, even that has not helped the congressional image. ''People say, 'Aha! We knew you needed an ethics code,' '' he says.

As Democratic whip Thomas S. Folely of Washington remarked this week, there are ''very few bodies that would have subjected themselves'' to such an investigation as in the recent probe. ''Overall the House was vindicated,'' he said of charges of ''widespread abuse with respect to pages.''

But that fact may have been lost in the klieg lights that shined on the two censured members.

The House is still waiting for a second shoe to drop. The drug investigation by the same committee is still in progress. It is widely speculated that that probe will find more evidence than did the one on sexual misconduct.

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