WASHINGTON -- Rep. Eric Fingerhut, who hit Washington two years ago as the self-styled poster boy for the freshmen reform movement, has become this election year's most visible symbol of how the tables have turned.
The Ohio Democrat built his 1992 campaign on a promise to change the way Congress does business. Specifically, he called the use of taxpayers' money to mail out self-promoting newsletters "an egregious perk" that should be restricted in election years.
Now, despite a record of leadership on reform issues in the 103rd Congress, Mr. Fingerhut is being blasted by his opponent in a tight re-election race as a hypocrite and a sell-out to the Washington syndrome. Key evidence: Mr. Fingerhut spent $100,000 of taxpayer money to send out self-promoting newsletters in this election year.
"If this is all they've got on me -- that I sent out a newsletter -- I'll take it," Mr. Fingerhut said.
"No one in Congress has worked harder than I have on reform," he added, noting that those efforts included cutting Congress' budget for mailing out newsletters.
But his protests reveal a frustration shared by many of his colleagues in the huge, 110-member House freshman class of 1992. Most were elected on reform platforms, promising profound changes in Washington if voters would just throw the bums out. Now back on the campaign trail, the freshmen are discovering to their horror that they are the bums.
"The place is cleaner than ever before, and people are angrier than ever before at the institution," said Rep. Sherrod Brown, another freshman Democrat from Ohio who is facing a tough re-election fight.
Of 63 House incumbents deemed by Congressional Quarterly magazine as most likely to lose this year, 31 are freshmen, and all but eight of the freshmen are Democrats.
Many of those Democratic freshmen would probably have been in trouble, anyway. They were elected by tiny margins in districts just as apt to choose Republicans; now they have the added burden of being linked to an unpopular Democratic president.
What makes their prospects especially bleak is that their failure to deliver on reform promises has given their challengers a powerful issue.
"It's not just anti-incumbency," said Charles Millard, a Republican New York City councilman who is trying to unseat freshman Democrat Carolyn Maloney. "I think the public is really tired of people who say one thing and do another."
There are plenty of grounds for complaint. After two years of talk and promises, not one major piece of reform legislation was enacted by the 103rd Congress. Some of the legislation fell victim to Republican obstructionism in the Senate. A lobbying-reform and gift-ban proposal, as well as legislation to bring Congress under the same personnel and anti-discrimination laws as other Americans, both passed the House, only to be killed by GOP filibusters in the Senate.
But Democrats as well as Republicans played a role in the demise of a bill to reform campaign finance laws. And proposals to reform internal congressional procedures -- such as eliminating committees and cutting staff -- never got off the ground.
'You can't bat 1,000'
"It's hard for any human being to change, and we're dealing here with an institution that has 200 years of history behind it," said Rep. Karen Shepherd, an endangered Democratic freshman from Utah, who, with Mr. Fingerhut, was a leader of the freshmen reform effort. "I understand it's important to succeed, but we made some progress. You can't bat 1,000."
Even more than their poor batting average, though, the freshmen reformers seem to be under attack for individual inconsistencies, such as Mr. Fingerhut's, that challengers say reveal them to be frauds.
In the case of Ms. Maloney, Mr. Millard likes to recall the complaints she made in 1992 against the incumbent she unseated, Republican Rep. Bill Green.
"Bill Green says he's squeaky clean -- but he still takes PAC money and uses tax dollars to finance constituent newsletters," said a 1992 Maloney campaign piece. "Bill Green's record proves he's just another politician."
Now, Ms. Maloney, like Mr. Fingerhut a former official with the reform group Common Cause, is among the leading recipients of money from political action committees. She is also using tax dollars to finance newsletters.
"That quote about Green was taken out of context," said Marshall Miller, a spokesman for Ms. Maloney. He said the congresswoman never advocated a ban -- only limits -- on PAC contributions. Further, Mr. Miller said, the congresswoman stopped sending newsletters in February to avoid the appearance of political abuse.
Freshmen Reps. Karan English of Arizona and Leslie Byrne of Virginia are both being criticized by their Republican opponents for opposing a motion to apply the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act to congressional workers. In fact, the law already applied to congressional workers, and the motion was a Republican procedural trick.
But with an electorate that seems impatient with politicians, such explanations are difficult to get across.
"We seem to be going through a kind of spasm," said Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst. "I don't think the public wants to give any incumbent the benefit of the doubt."
In the case of some Democratic incumbents, the simple act of having supported President Clinton on his controversial budget package last year is enough for challengers to charge the incumbent Congress member has sold out to the system.
The best-known example is Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, the Pennsylvania Democrat who announced she would vote against the budget, then cast the deciding vote in favor of it after Mr. Clinton had put enormous pressure on her.
But in congressional districts throughout the nation nearly every Democrat who supported that budget bill is being blamed for casting the deciding vote.
"I told President Clinton before the vote that it would probably mean I wouldn't be back," said Rep. Bart Stupak, a freshman Democrat from Michigan, who is now being accused by his opponent, businessman Gil Ziegler, of having raised taxes on senior citizens. "But I still think I did what was right for my district because most people got a tax cut."
Republican freshmen are fewer than Democrats, and generally in safer districts. But some were also elected on reform platforms that have come back to haunt them. One of the three most endangered Republican freshmen is Jay Dickey of Arkansas, perhaps the only state where opposition to the Clinton agenda is a handicap.
"Jay Dickey is the kind of politician who says one thing when he's here at home and does another when he's in Washington," charged Brian Bond, campaign manager for Mr. Dickey's opponent, Democratic state Sen. Jay Bradford.
To neutralize this poisonous atmosphere, most freshmen are turning to the tactic of telling voters about the local issues they promoted while in Washington.
For example, Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a North Dakota Democrat, talks about his efforts to reshape the Clinton health care proposal along the lines of "North Dakota" values. But since the health care initiative collapsed, it's difficult for him to point to any concrete action.
"I have been surprised at how hard it is to communicate to your constituents about what you've actually done," Mr. Pomeroy lamented.