If members of Congress are guilty of anything in the Mark Foley scandal, it is their intense and congenital preoccupation with self-preservation.

Foley was a well-liked, respected member of the House Republican inner circle right up until the second it was disclosed that he had sent inappropriate-sounding e-mails to young male congressional pages. The really steamy e-mails didn’t come until later.

None of his erstwhile friends said, “Gee, Mark, why don’t you get some professional help for that problem? And in the meantime drop by our prayer circle.”

No, unlike the drunks and the druggies, Foley was radioactive and anybody who touched him could be glowing in the dark, too.

In short order, he was a non-person, gone from Congress and buried in rehab, his name pried off the office door. Since former members retain House floor and gym privileges, it will be real curious what happens if Foley tries to exercise those.

Even with Foley gone, the congressional antennae for self-preservation were aquiver. A fair explanation of why Foley’s problem took so long to surface is that the other members couldn’t bring themselves to think the worst of a colleague.

The formula for success in the House is often said to be: To get along, go along. And nobody is going to get too far accusing a fellow member _ based, remember, on sketchy evidence at the time _ of being the next thing to a pedophile.

But that was too easy. Somebody would have to take the blame. The top lieutenants to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, sensing that the captain might be gently nudging them toward the gangplank, quickly dumped the mess in Hastert’s lap.

There were mutters and cries for his resignation to the point where, at the end of last week, he plaintively said, “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Attention then swung to Hastert’s aides, and the speaker said that if any of them had prior knowledge and didn’t report it he would be fired. In the halls of the Capitol, members of Congress are gods and it would take a gutsy aide of independent means with a second career in mind to rat out a member.

The scapegoat talk quickly blew over, self-preservation again, because of the implicit threat, “If I go, you go.” And because the Republicans are in such low odor, a lot of them might be going in the next election. Foley might have been a tragedy, but an even greater tragedy would be incumbents losing their seats.

House Republicans took to making their usual argument: “The Democrats did it, too, and they did it worse than we do.” They halfheartedly brought up Bill Clinton, but in a curious way even many Republicans now think of the Clinton years as the good times.

The best they could come up with is Gerry Studds, a gay Massachusetts Democrat who had an affair with a 17-year-old male page and, unrepentant, ran for re-election and won. Alas, Studds is 69, retired from Congress for nine years now and the affair itself was 33 years ago.

The Republicans might have a better case with Barney Frank, also a gay Massachusetts Democrat, who was reprimanded by his colleagues in 1990 for letting a male prostitute set up shop in his apartment.

But Frank is wickedly funny and, more importantly, has 26 years’ seniority. And after the Nov. 7 congressional elections, he may be returning to Washington as a powerful committee chairman-in-waiting with much in the way of patronage and pork to dispense.

Self-preservation, you know.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com)

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