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Scandals Rekindle Talk of Term Limits

Rubber checks and meal stubs have voters disgruntled yet again - a letter from Washington

TAKE one: Members of Congress are a greedy, self-indulgent bunch who have lost sight of how real people live and think their status puts them above the normal rules of conduct when it comes to paying bills and balancing the checkbook.Take two: Members of Congress are a hard-working lot who put in grueling hours for a fraction of the pay they could be earning in the private sector. The nearly weekly trips back and forth between Washington and the home district strain family life and sap energy. Add also the constant fund-raising and campaigning for reelection every two years. Will the real Congress please stand up? It's the first image that has swept the nation and fueled a "throw the bums out" attitude among disgruntled voters, some of whom are coalescing in a drive to limit politicians' terms. Turns out more than 100 House members bounced 8,331 checks at the "House Bank," many of them for more than $1,000, and didn't have to pay penalties like regular people. Then there's the $300,000 in meal tabs that House members have stiffed House restaurants for. Most of that money is not owed to taxpayers, but to the company that ran the restaurants. But garnering smaller headlines is the latest installment of a slower-moving but perhaps more important story: Some well-regarded House members are calling it quits. Rep. William Gray, the No. 3 ranked House member, stunned Washington earlier this year when he left to head the United Negro College Fund. Now two more Democrats with leadership potential, both coincidentally from Ohio, have decided that it's time to end the rat race. Dennis Eckart, elected 11 years ago at the tender age of 30, has opted for more time with his wife and son rather than furthering his promising but grinding career on the Hill. Donald Pease, an eight-term congressman and senior member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, says he too is looking to jump off the treadmill for family concerns. Maybe the term-limitation people will get what they want more easily than they thought. Or maybe it's just the good ones, the ones who can swing it in the private sector, who are moving on. "A trend is developing - retirements," says a former longtime Capitol Hill aide. "American politics has been trivialized, which is personified by these banking and restaurant scandals." The point members want to make on this latest brouhaha is that they don't live high on the hog. "People in their living rooms are getting the impression that congressmen are eating at the Four Seasons for free," says the former aide. "Believe me. I've been there. Eating in the members dining room has all the culinary delights of a stuffed pig." Which is not to say that even mediocre meals shouldn't be paid for. The point is, says the aide, that in time, the Hill becomes "a miserable place to be." Congress becomes self-absorbed and divorced from the real world, and thus members fail to see why the electorate demonstrates more outrage over a mini-scandal of little real consequence than over matters of genuine import. In her new book called "Scandals," Washington journalist Suzanne Garment concludes that the public's ability to learn of official misdeeds has increased in recent years, to the point where investigations are consuming a huge amount of Congress's energy and time which itself becomes a scandal," she says. Why, then, do officials persist in ethically questionable behavior? "Politicians are very 'appetitive' people - that is, people with appetites - for sex, money, power," says Ms. Garment. "What I worry about in the banking scandal is not the sharks who were looking for an interest-free loan, or the slobs like most of us who couldn't get their check books together, but ... [those] who simply kept their money in a bank that didn't pay interest! "These are people who are watching over the federal deficit? It's a scandal of competence," Garments concludes.

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