The Senate Select Committee on Ethics says only one of the five senators accused of trying to influence government regulatory policy in behalf of financier Charles Keating transgressed. That was Sen. Alan Cranston, the California Democrat who is ill and has announced he will retire. What was his transgression? He "may have engaged in improper conduct reflecting upon the Senate."
In other words, whatever Senator Cranston may have done that corrupted the regulatory process or helped bring about the multi-billion-dollar public bailout of Mr. Keating's scandal-plagued Lincoln Federal Savings and Loan was immaterial. What counts is that he made the Senate look bad.
Many Americans would say that the Ethics Committee's conduct reflects upon the Senate. The committee not only gives the appearance of selective prosecution, it appears to have arrived at its conclusions after secret wheeling-and-dealing sessions in which personal and partisan motives were involved. Before they went behind those closed doors, some of the six Ethics Committee members were known to want to condemn at least two or three of "the Keating Five." The decision not to do that was unanimous. This suggests a deal was made to keep the matter from going to the full Senate for open debate on what senators are supposed to do and not supposed to do for influential supporters and campaign contributors.
We hold no brief for Senator Cranston. He allowed Mr. Keating's campaign contributions and his needs for "constituent service" to become too closely linked. The senator's behavior did not just appear wrong, it was wrong. But we believe he would be justified in taking this matter to the floor and demanding that the committee make its case for singling him out. It might be able to do that, but it sure didn't in its statement.
The Ethics Committee weakly recommended the Senate set up a "task force on constituent service" to adopt "written standards." We thought that was the committee's job. (The House Ethics Committee has already set such standards.) Among the standards we would like to see is a requirement that senators make public on a daily or weekly basis their contacts with regulators on behalf of constituents or others. A senator who was aware that efforts to help someone would promptly be known to all concerned would be careful about improper intervention with regulatory agencies. Such a rule should be coupled with one requiring reporting of campaign contributions immediately upon receipt (the technology for that is now available).
In the area of "constituent service" as in other endeavors, timely publicity not only can expose wrongdoing, it can prevent it.