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CONGRESS FACES DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD

Even before the current House bank scandal, there was ample evidence that the public has a dim view of Congress, both as an institution and in its ability to deal with the nation's problems.

In the past year, several studies have reached similar conclusions: that the public believes that politicians in Washington are isolated from their constituents and their problems, motivated increasingly by self-preservation and influenced primarily by powerful interests that fund their campaigns.Many lawmakers acknowledge the problem. But they also seem to feel that institutional deadlock, lack of leadership and a slavish devotion to following the public opinion polls may share the blame for the malfunctioning of the political system and the resulting loss of public confidence.

Those attitudes are evident in a new study commissioned by the Centel Corp. (which sponsored a 1991 report on public dissatisfaction) and the Joyce Foundation in which 16 members of Congress from both parties, who were promised anonymity, discussed the causes of and possible remedies for the situation.

"The Congress stands in lower public esteem than anytime I can remember," said a Midwestern House Democrat with 28 years' seniority. "Most think we are dishonest," he said. A constituent called Congress "irrelevant."

Beyond that, a number acknowledged the weaknesses of Congress.

"Congress is inherently incapable of leading the nation," said a Midwestern Democrat with 12 years' service.

Others - from both parties - criticized the lack of presidential leadership.

"Vision is something that depends on a president," said a Midwestern Republican with 12 years in the House. "Unfortunately, we have not had a campaign for the presidency that has meant anything since 1980."

Several members said they felt that years of divided government were taking their toll.

"The public's frustrations with politics is due in large part to its unwillingness to elect a government," said a Western Democrat. "Entrusting control of the Congress in one party and of the White House in the other is not the same as electing a government."

Indeed, a number interviewed for the study blamed the public and said that rather than being distant from the views of constituents, too many of their colleagues were being swayed by what polls showed was popular.

A Midwestern Republican, who has served for 12 years, said he was fed up with people asking, "When is Congress going to start listening to us? How come you are all out of touch with the American people?"

He said. "Far from being too distant from people, modern communications and technology have put us in such constant contact with people it is as if we had rubbed sandpaper across our fingertips . . . We are hypersensitive to the vicissitudes of public opinion on every little technicality."

And member after member complained that while the public demands that lawmakers face up to the nation's problems, it's not ready to pay the price.

"When most people say they're ready for strong medicine, they assume that somebody else is going to get the medicine," said a Southeastern House Democrat. "None of them see themselves as being part of the problem."

Nothing in the study suggested any simple way out of the present morass. Indeed, a number of the lawmakers expressed a high degree of frustration with their inability to get the public to focus on difficult problems.

"People are getting pretty much what they asked for," the Western Democratic congressman said.

(Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News.)