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The New Ethical Heat

HOUSE Speaker Jim Wright is feeling the full heat of politics and the law this week, as well as the bright light of television as he seeks to rebut the charges against him. They are very serious charges: Financial favors from a Texas developer with direct interest in legislation, ties to savings-and-loan organizations trying to fight tougher federal regulations, circumventing limits on outside congressional income, questionable investments in a nursing home venture. In all, Mr. Wright is charged with 69 violations of House rules.

Obviously, it's not a happy time for Democrats. Not only is their senior elected colleague - second in line for succession to the presidency - in hot water. Rep. Tony Coelho, majority whip and third-ranking Democrat in the House, has some ethical questions to answer as well.

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These include a complicated 1986 deal in which Mr. Coelho borrowed $100,000 from California lending institutions to buy junk bonds. One of those to whom Coelho was indebted was in the middle of a dispute with the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, and the deal occurred at a time when Congress was considering restrictions on these high-yield, risky securities.

Of course, Wright and Coelho should be given every opportunity to explain their actions. Due process should prevail.

But political and legal outcomes are not necessarily the same, nor should they be. With today's emphasis on ethics in government, avoiding even the appearance of wrongdoing - especially the use of one's influence for personal gain - becomes increasingly important. Or to put it more directly, what was always ethically sensitive has become politically acute as well.

Senior legislative posts, like senior executive positions, should be based on special trust as well as political clout. John Tower (and far too many people in the Reagan administration) found this out the hard way.

It will be up to Democrats in the House to decide whether Jim Wright stays or goes as Speaker. Our feeling is that if he can't successfully rebut the charges against him - if he can't leave his colleagues and the public feeling that he is free of scandal - then he should not be part of the congressional leadership, whether or not he actually violated House rules. That's what we mean about the difference between legal and political outcomes.

It will be up to the voters in his Fort Worth, Texas, district to decide whether he continues to be fit to represent them in Washington.

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