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The buzzword in the House Democratic cloakroom is "dignity." House Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, should be allowed to retire with "dignity," they're saying.

Dignity is the cover word for the Democrats' attempts to work out a seamy plea bargain for Jim Wright, the entrepreneur. Dignity means that the lobbyists' money will keep rolling into the pockets of House committee chairmen and the party leadership. Dignity ensures there will be continued reverence for congressional private enterprise.

Wright, by all accounts, has offered to step down as speaker -- but not resign from the House -- if the Ethics Committee dropped its most serious charges against him.

Fortunately, as Congress broke up for the Memorial Day weekend, the word from the Republicans on the Ethics Committee is they have lost interest in making a deal in the case of Jim Wright, the venture capitalist.

So far so good. We hope members' visits to their districts this weekend will stiffen their backbones.

"I hope there will be no deals," said Rep. Bill Paxon, R-Williamsville. Paxon is not on the ethics panel, but his attitude on Wright is fairly typical of the young conservatives who want to clear away the dead wood in both parties.

"Many people in my town meeting say they've lost confidence in the Congress," Paxon said. "And a full airing of all the facts (on the Wright case) will help to restore public confidence in the Congress."

The Republicans have a legitimate political interest in making Wright defend himself in the well of the House on television against all 69 corruption charges, but there is much more to it.

House Democratic bigwigs aren't worried about Wright's feelings or reputation. They're worried about themselves. They want to avoid a show trial, the kind their Senate colleagues gave John Tower and Appeals Judge Robert Bork.

A spectacular on the House floor could finally separate the fat cats from their side money -- millions in gifts, free tripsand other perks they get from the lobbyists.

The next thing you know we'd have Phil Donohue asking why members are using taxpayer-financed staff to run campaign errands, and actually solicit campaign gifts and speaking fees for their bosses.

Somebody out there might ask why $2,000 given by a lobbyist to a House member for voting the right way is a legal "honorarium" and the same amount of money slipped to a cop is a bribe.

With intensive TV coverage the voter might get a working understanding of some aspects of a member's personal finances.

Only a handful of voters grasp, for example, that those in Congress before 1980, which means anybody in leadership, can keep their campaign treasuries when they leave.

The man most likely to succeed Jim Wright as speaker, Majority Leader Tom Foley, D-Wash., has piled up $600,000 in his kitty, a potential retirement fund. Foley's treasury is four times the size of the average member's.The man slated to move up to majority leader, Democratic Whip Tony Coelho, Calif., Friday announced plans to resign from the House, this over a shady stock deal with Drexel, Burham, Lambert. He also took $90,100 in speaking fees from special interests last year.

Another on the leadership ladder, Rep. Mary Rose Oakar, D-Ohio, had a brush with the ethics panel last year over allegations of maintaining a shadow payroll.

Some committee chairmen, no less circumspect than Wright, think nothing of bullying regulatory agencies in behalf of contributors, or politely squeezing for donations people whom they invite to testify at their hearings.

When they get caught at trying to undermine the regulatory process in order to save an anemic bank, they blush briefly and claim they were only trying to help a major employer in their district.

When Wright couldn't get his way with a regulator, one ethics committee report said, he spread the word his opponent was a homosexual. It is not unusual for a committee chairman to use staff to harass and defame an opponent.

Wright's biggest mistake was not realizing that when he became speaker he entered the national spotlight -- and became a 5,000-pound gorilla. He kept on doing what some other congressional leaders do all the time. Wright caught a lot of publicity simply because he was too important to ignore.

An example of this dynamic is Coelho. He failed to report, as legally required, that he made a small fortune in a junk bond transaction from a dealer facing racketeering charges.

While an owner of a dairy management firm, Coelho also worked to pass legislation to help the industry. There are old stories about Coelho's dealings with shady people in the S&L trade.

These issues are surfacing now only because of the controversy on Wright. The longer the Wright scandal simmers, the longer the Democratic majority will bleed from adverse publicity.

Only the tourniquet of "dignity" will stop the hemorrhage.

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