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Voluntary House Retirements Reach 54 as HcHugh Departs

By Kenneth J. Cooper
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON

The turmoil in the House claimed an ironic victim Monday when Rep. Matthew F. McHugh (D-N.Y.), a member of the 1974 Watergate class who led the ethics investigation into the House Bank scandal, announced he would not seek re-election in his upstate district.

McHugh's unexpected announcement came on the same day that Rep. Robert W. Davis (R-Mich.), whom the ethics committee identified as one of the top 22 "abusers" of the House Bank, said he would not run again either. Their decisions increased to 54 the post-World War II record for voluntary House retirements in a single year.

House members from both parties and congressional scholars said they were dismayed that McHugh, a liberal who enjoys a bipartisan reputation for integrity, joined the exodus from the House. Several doubted that many House newcomers, whose numbers may reach 100 next year, would match his caliber.

McHugh, 53, cited wide public disrespect of Congress, his frustration with an ineffective federal government and a desire to spend more time with his family as his reasons for leaving.

"I will admit to some pain and frustration when I find myself frequently put in the position of defending my character for simply being a member of Congress," he said. "There is now too great a gulf between my hopeful belief in what our institutions can be and the public perceptions of them."

The two-page announcement did not mention his chairmanship of the ethics subcommittee that investigated the now-defunct bank, but at an Ithaca, N.Y., news conference McHugh denied that he was retiring solely because of the inquiry's impact on him.

But Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), who said he tried to persuade McHugh to run again, blamed overreaction by the news media to the bank scandal for making the fellow Appropriations Committee member conclude that serving in the House was no longer worth the trouble.

"It's not the bank investigation, it's getting devoured by a feeding frenzy that makes no distinction between the best and the worst in the House," Obey said. He referred to pressures behind House votes in March to disclose the names of not only 22 top abusers but also 303 members who wrote at least one bad check in a 39-month period ending last October.

Rep. James McDermott (D-Wash.), who serves with McHugh on the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, the formal name of the ethics panel, also cited the bank inquiry's impact.

"The stress of that took a physical toll on Matt," said McDermott, who declined to be more specific. He said McHugh, a lawyer, become "very, very upset" in particular about leaks of the panel's preliminary list of the top 21 Democratic abusers and other information that investigators gathered.

Previously, McHugh had been known for his work on the Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations. He was assigned to the ethics committee last year and last fall was tapped as acting chairman of both the full panel and a six-member subcommittee because Rep. Louis Stokes (D-Ohio), the permanent chairman, had overdrafts at the bank. Near the end of the six-month inquiry, an embarrassed McHugh discovered that he had one overdraft.

House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), said McHugh's departure "will be felt all the greater at a time when his qualities of fairness and good will are so clearly required."

Davis, 59, has been under fire in his northern Michigan district for having 878 overdrafts and being the third-worst abuser of the House Bank. A seven-term member and ranking Republican on the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, Davis said a recent poll done for his campaign showed he could win again.

"However, a victory in the general election would inevitably involve an extremely large fund-raising effort, constant campaigning and a great deal of negativism. Ultimately, I decided that I was not interested in that kind of campaign."