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How sweet it is. Some of the very congressmen who have so successfully practiced the politics of envy in American economic life now weep copious tears when its viciousness is turned, for a change, against them.

Whence comes this "mean-spirit-edness," this "mindless cannibalism"? they demand, as they embark on a forced march to the congressional exits. Well, guys, the answer can be found with a swift glance in the shaving mirror.The truth behind the maudlin rantings is that such congressmen for years have been among the nation's most shameless hypocrites: simultaneously feathering their own nests, with everything from ludicrous perks to meaningless junkets, while leading a "populist" charge against anyone who managed to outearn them in private life.

Congress has used every tax bill since 1982 to vent its outrage on those Americans who were getting ahead. Our noble legislators cut back on the dentists' pension plans - and thereby cut back on the nation's overall savings and investments. They vastly increased the paperwork and the costs for small businesses. They changed the rules in midstream on those who had invested in good faith under the tax rules of earlier Congresses. They paused while flying off to Rio to tell the traveling salesman he could no longer fully deduct his business lunch.

Long forgotten was the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln ("you cannot build your own home by tearing down another man's house") or even Jack Kennedy ("a rising tide lifts all boats"). This Congress for years has focused instead on (1) non-stop revenue raising (to reduce its own gaping deficits without having to reduce the spending that helps it get elected), and (2) nastily, demagogically exploiting the politics of envy, while wholly ignoring the economics of growth.

There is a word for all this, and it is not any of the self-serving syllables being used by disgraced politicians. The word is chutzpa.

Chutzpa is an old Yiddish word that has become as American as pizza and chow mein. It means, of course, unmitigated effrontery - which often, itself, seems like a perfect definition of Congress. (An illustrative story tells of a woman bitten by a dog who, when advised that the dog is mad, replies: "Chutzpa! The dog should be mad?")

And so the mad dogs of Congress, having stirred the frenzy of envy in American society, now thrash about in indignation when this "unaccountable mean-spiritness" is turned on them. And we pretend that the issue is "ethics."

Not so, I fear. "Ethics" and "greed" have lately become the hardy perennials of American pseudo-thought - the former identifiable as what we of course possess, the latter being some other guy's despicable urge. Yet, as the latest furors in Washington actually prove, the true applications of such words are often lost in the headline shuffle.

"Greed" should never be confused (as it usually is in Congress) with the legitimate desire to improve one's lot in private life and to keep more of one's earnings. That desire is the keystone of all economic progress. It is what built this country, provided its pool of savings for future growth and kept us competitive. Honestly to desire a better life for oneself and one's family is not "greed" - even though it often plays well on the hustings to denounce as "greedy" any of our neighbors who has had the impudence legally to outearn us.

Similarly, the genuine "ethics" issue in Washington is not whether some conniver twisted the House rules for personal gain. Those who did should be prosecuted; that's what courts are for. (Leaving Congress - and keeping your lavish pension - may not suffice, despite the orgy of crocodile tears.)

The genuine "ethics" issue concerns a Congress that survives by stealing from others, that habitually bribes groups of voters with other people's money and then has the nerve to call itself "generous" and "compassionate." No wonder these, the theoretically "ethical" incumbent congressmen who have preyed so successfully on our meanest and most envious instincts, get re-elected more than 98 percent of the time - a higher percentage, incidentally, than currently prevails in the Supreme Soviet.

And now they tell us, sadly and with apparent bafflement, that somehow the air has been poisoned.

Chutzpa! The dog should be mad?