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It costs about $2.5 billion a year to run the Congress, and in the last election, candidates raised $791 million, mostly special-interest money, to campaign for seats that pay $133,600 a year.We're not talking about a sandbox. This is an institution that is expensive to operate, expensive to buy and expensive to run for. You'd think members would have something better to do than to run around staging a mass confessional, parading their sins, babbling excruciating details of their sexual naughtiness.

The prospect of this seems likely as the third Republican member in two weeks, Henry Hyde of Illinois, was forced to confess to illicit, lustful behavior. Hyde had an extensive affair with a beautician named Cherie Snodgrass. Mr. Snodgrass found out and stormed over to the Hydes' house, where the enraged and now deceased Mrs. Hyde told him, ``Your wife must be a tramp.'

Caught with his pants down, Hyde, now 74, broke up with the Snodgrass woman, whose marriage fell apart. The reconciled Hydes became lovey-dovey again.

Hyde dismissed this as ``youthful indiscretions,' which implies to me it took place on a moonlit prom night in the back seat of his father's 1938 Chevrolet. But he was a fully grown 41 and about to launch a distinguished 12-term congressional career when his picture was taken with Cherie in his lap at a tawdry Chicago nightclub. Actually, I'm shocked and appalled.

What shocks me is that Henry, whom I've always thought of as a quintessentially dour midwestern fuddy-duddy, ever had the nerve and imagination to kick up his heels and behave with such gleeful, liberated abandon. What appalls me is that Henry should have to put up with this garbage being strewn in public. In his rotund old age, his white mane flowing luxuriantly, we must try very hard to imagine a frisky Henry the Home Wrecker chasing skirts in Chicago gin mills.

When Rep. Dan Burton, nobody's idea of animal magnetism, has made similar confessions, nothing should shock us.

The point is: Who the hell cares? And who expected anything different to come from Kenneth Starr's weird obsession that consensual sex acts and people's natural instinct to conceal them are the stuff of a constitutional crisis?

I'd far sooner the sex-crazed members of Congress confess that they promiscuously milk special interests for campaign funds and tell why they haven't passed campaign-finance reform. The Center for Public Integrity has released an exhaustive study of congressional fund-raising patterns. It's called ``The Buying of Congress' and it concludes that, ``with literally thousands of multibillion-dollar multinational giants making the world their playground and with Washington beset by thousands upon thousands more lobbyists representing these and many other interests, Congress is increasingly in danger of becoming an auction house where public policies are sold to the highest bidder.'

The report is full of good stuff. Did you know, for instance, that Newt Gingrich's biggest source of funds is a toilet fortune? He's gotten $816,000 from Terry and Mary Kohler of Sheboygan, Wis.

Like the other top 10 givers to Gingrich, they are not from Georgia, probably wouldn't be caught dead there.

Nothing - not Chinese scandals, not calls for reform, not critical studies by the Center for Public Integrity - has slowed the careening congressional fund-raising bandwagon.


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