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CORRUPTION IN CONGRESS? PUBLIC MUST BEAR SOME OF THE BLAME

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It's just politics" is the well-worn phrase that Americans use to show their tolerance for the petty and grand larcenies that are woven into the fabric of our political life.

The worst crimes that politicians commit are not indictable offenses. It is only when a politician slips money from the public till directly into his own pocket that we demand his hide.House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, who has represented a Chicago district for 36 years, is charged with embezzling taxpayers' money. U.S. Attorney Eric H. Holder Jr. has charged him with diverting both office and campaign committee funds to his personal account for purchase of seven cars and vans, with using stamp vouchers to drain his office account of $50,000 in cash, with diverting $40,000 of his office account to gifts for friends and supporters and with carrying people on his payroll who did not perform official duties.

This is, however, very small potatoes for a politician whose committee presided over the 1986 Tax Reform Act that abridged a number of government subsidies for real estate speculators, leading, in part, to the collapse of $1 trillion in real estate assets which, in turn, helped deplete the federal insurance fund for S&L depositors after building speculators defaulted, costing taxpayers approximately $200 billion and destroying the careers of many.

But folly is still mere folly, no matter how vast the scale, and crime is still crime, no matter how penny ante. A more enlightened policy would hold lawmakers more accountable for the folly of their laws than for their personal indiscretions. We would all be better off if our representatives spent more time stealing and less time lawmaking.

But there is no such hope for our immediate future. Holder hopes to make an example of Rostenkowski. Henceforth, taxpayers will be defrauded only through legal means.

Holder, who comes out of the public integrity division of the Jutice Department, is anxious to combat the cynicism that causes us to succumb to the defeatist notion that thievery goes with public office.

Yet Holder's zeal shows us that prosecutors are afflicted with a corruption of their own. It is known as the expansive indictment. In order to bamboozle grand juries and to coerce defendants into copping a plea, prosecutors use expansive interpretations of statutes in order to multiply the counts in an indictment.

In Rosty's case, four straightforward counts of embezzlement become a 17-count indictment replete with mail and wire fraud charges. The mail and wire fraud statutes were enacted against unscrupulous fly-by-night hucksters who use the mail and telephone to peddle fraudulent products and services. Rosty did not commit mail fraud by having House checks sent to ghost employees.

If Holder wants to clean up the public sector, he can start with his own indictment. It is just as wrong for a prosecutor to pad his indictment as it is for a congressman to pad his payroll - and it's probably just as expensive.

The case has a wider message as well. Congress is in trouble because it doesn't police itself. It doesn't police itself because the public doesn't demand it. It is the voters who transformed the House of Representatives into a corrupt one-party state like Old Mexico. The long unbroken rule of the House Democrats has produced a corruption that is much more serious than the petty thievery of its members.

The money that Congress steals is not important. What does us harm is the piecemeal theft of our individual responsibility. It is our freedom and liberty that are embezzled.

This is the real crime, but it is one on which only the voters can convict.