Ethics Watchdog Fred Wertheimer: When He Barks, Congress Listens

updated 12/18/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/18/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

You might think that an ethics watchdog in Washington, D.C., would need the savagery of a pit bull just to survive. But Fred Wertheimer, head of the good-government pressure group Common Cause, is anything but ferocious. Utterly unflappable, Wertheimer lopes through the corridors of power with the benign enthusiasm of a collie. "The Hill is a place for discourse and discussion," he says. "I do not believe in getting into shouting matches." And though others may have grown frustrated and cynical after 18 years of hounding political and bureaucratic malefactors, Wertheimer remains optimistic. "This has not been a great decade for values," he says. "But I really believe we're about to change on that. I think the pendulum is swinging."

If so, at least part of the credit must go to Wertheimer himself. In the past year alone, his public broadsides helped force the resignation of Speaker of the House Jim Wright over conflict-of-interest issues and also prodded the government into launching a formal investigation of the devastating savings-and-loan scandals. Now Wertheimer has scored another coup in Congress, helping to persuade the House of Representatives to give up most forms of outside income in return for an approximate 38 percent pay raise. Signed into law Nov. 30 by President Bush, the so-called pay ethics bill takes aim at the countless ways in which members of Congress solicited contributions from a host of private interests, prompting charges that votes were for sale. "What we had was a system of legalized corruption," says Wertheimer. "There was a sense that people in Washington were taking care of themselves rather than the public. The bill is a genuine effort to say that, as of now, members of Congress are working for their constituents. Period."

As usual, Wertheimer, 50, provoked controversy with his crusade, though this time his efforts came under fire from some reformers as well as from defenders of the status quo. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader, a frequent Wertheimer ally in the past, attacked the pay raise, arguing that a lackluster Congress had failed to earn the money. But Wertheimer argues the trade-off was necessary to end the all-too-common practice of accepting honoraria—usually speaking fees—which Wertheimer describes as "the money that private interests pay directly into the pockets of members of Congress." Starting in 1991, the legislation will ban Congressmen from receiving outside income for consulting, providing legal or financial advice or serving on corporate boards. "This is a little bit like cod-liver oil," says Wertheimer. "It doesn't taste very good, but it is very good for the system."

Wertheimer concedes that taxpayers, too, may find the pay hike hard to swallow. But he points out that the raise—which will boost House salaries from $89,500 to $124,400 a year by 1991—is in line with the rate of inflation since 1969. "When you play catch-up, you get big figures," he says. (The Senate voted for a 10 percent hike in their current $89,500 salary and agreed to a reduction in honoraria in exchange for equivalent cost-of-living increases.) The new legislation also includes cabinet officials and federal judges in the pay raise package. "It's a privilege, it's an honor to be able to serve in these jobs," says Wertheimer. "We think it makes sense to pay our top officials, the people who lead and govern the country, salaries that reflect how important these jobs are."

Wertheimer himself earns about $75,000 a year for defending the public interest. He and wife Linda, 46, a host of the National Public Radio program All Things Considered, lead a disarmingly normal, if not exactly average, life in Washington. Shunning the party circuit, they dine out about once a week with friends who include CBS newswoman Lesley Stahl and NPR correspondent Cokie Roberts. Come autumn, Wertheimer, a self-described "monster Redskins fan," indulges his love of football. He also has a passion for fine food: For his 50th birthday, last January, he and Linda went to Paris for a meal at Taillevent, the legendary restaurant with legendary prices to match.

About the only thing that can get Fred salivating faster than foie gras is a stack of government documents. A graduate of the University of Michigan and Harvard Law School, he worked as an aide to Massachusetts Rep. Silvio Conte and later as a lawyer for the Securities and Exchange Commission. He joined Common Cause in 1971 as a lobbyist and quickly flourished in the arcane world of legislative machinery. His greatest early triumph came in the wake of Watergate, when he helped lead the successful fight to reform the financing of presidential campaigns. Since his appointment as Common Cause's president in 1981, he has lost none of his dedication. Linda says he will surround himself with yellow legal pads and lapse almost into a trance for hours on end as he absorbs legislation and plots new lobbying strategy. "I have gone to work every day for 18 years now to a job that I literally love," he says. "I think we're doing the right thing."

Wertheimer is already looking to the next challenge: House and Senate campaign finance reform. He hopes to keep chipping away at the influence of special interest groups, especially political action committees, which poured $151 million into congressional campaigns in 1988. He also wants to find a way to curb what he calls the "arms race mentality" that governs many election races, namely by imposing overall spending limits. "People spend $10 million, $15 million on Senate campaigns," says Wertheimer. "It's just far too much money. You need to limit the ability to use campaign contributions to buy influence."

Wertheimer admits that solutions will not come easily, if at all. But he is eager to fight the good fight—and enjoy himself doing it. "We're trying to make sure that citizens get an honest and fair deal from government," he says. "We're trying to stop abuses of power and hold people accountable at all levels. That's great fun!"

—Bill Hewitt, Marilyn Balamaci in Washington, D.C.

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