His moods veered between sadness and anger, humor and fiery passion. In an emotional hour-long speech last week before the law-making body in which he has served for 34 years, Jim Wright announced his decision to resign as Speaker of the House of Representatives and to give up his seat by the end of June. But before becoming the first Speaker to be driven from office, Wright pleaded his innocence, offering a packed chamber a detailed rebuttal of the charges of financial mismanagement that the House ethics committee had levelled against him. And, referring to the bitter, continuing battle over ethics between House Democrats and Republicans, he implored the legislators “to bring this period of mindless cannibalism to an end.” But shortly after House members gave Wright a standing ovation, some of them warned of a prolonged period of titfor-tat bloodletting that could further tarnish the image of Congress and paralyse House proceedings. “Congress is like a war zone,” said Democrat Bill Richardson of New Mexico.
“You don’t know where the next bomb will drop.”
Amid the hostilities, House members this week were expected to elect Thomas Foley of Washington state— a popular, conciliatory Democrat—as the new Speaker. But the damage was already extensive, especially to the Democrats. On May 27, majority whip Tony Coelho of California—once considered the leading contender to replace Foley as House majority leader—announced his intention to resign after reports of an investigation into his financial dealings. And the head of the Democratic caucus, Representative William Gray of Pennsylvania, a leading candidate to replace Coelho as majority whip, struggled to shore up his support last week amid rumors that he was under justice department investigation for allegedly paying a no-show employee.
In return, some Democrats urged the ethics committee to pursue an investigation of minority whip Newt Gingrich, a brash Georgia Republican who filed the charges against Wright last year. The Democrats have accused Gingrich of violating House rules by accepting $125,000 to promote his book, Window of Opportunity—and not reporting the funds as contributions. But Gingrich, in turn, has promised to retaliate against an unnamed dozen
Democrats if the committee targets him. Said Representative Jack Brooks, a Texas Democrat: “There is an evil wind blowing in the halls of Congress today that is reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition.”
In the view of many Democrats, the case against Wright began as Republican retaliation for an action of the Democrat-controlled Senate: the rejection in March of President George
Bush’s nomination of former senator John Tower as defence secretary. But when the bipartisan ethics committee released its report on April 17, all 12 members endorsed the charges. Wright, who was second in line for the U.S. presidency after the vice-president, stood accused of violating congressional rules 69 times. He accepted $172,000 in illegal gifts and favors from Texas businessman George Mallick, the committee charged, at a time when Mallick had a direct interest in congressional legislation. And he allegedly sidestepped legal limits on speaking fees through bulk sales of his book, Reflections of a Public Man.
But even before the Wright drama was played out, news reports said that the justice department was expected to launch an investigation of Coelho, who allegedly received pref-
erential treatment in buying a $120,000 junk bond. While admitting that he had failed to report help from a savings and loan company executive in buying the bond, Coelho denied giving special political treatment to that industry in return. But he decided to step down, he said, to spare fellow Democrats another Wright-style ethics fight.
In the wake of Wright’s resignation, there was an almost palpable atmosphere of fear in Congress. Many Republicans argued that the Democrats’ 34-year hold on the House had a corrupting influence—but denied that the GOP was engaging in a witch-hunt. The National Republican Campaign Committee included that message in a briefing paper that it circulated quietly among Republican congressmen. Said the committee: “Democrats would have the news media and the American people think that Wright and Coelho’s fall has to do with ‘ethical McCarthyism’ and charac-
ter assassination. This is absolutely false.” Still, the stark references to the late senator Joseph McCarthy—who during the 1950s harassed people in the government and the private sector whom he branded as Communists—underscored the poisonous mood on Capitol Hill. Some optimists predicted that the mood would pass once Congress recesses for the summer in late June. “With Congress out,” said Richard Scammon, director of the Washington-based Elections Research Centre, “people will talk about baseball and the weather.” But in Washington, politics is often the only game in town. As for the weather, the most widely held forecast in Congress was for more tumultuous political storms.
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