Less booze but more rehab at Capitol, some observers say

Former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), disgraced by salacious e-mail exchanges with young congressional pages and under investigation by the FBI, checked himself into an alcohol rehabilitation clinic last weekend.

Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) sought help for his alcohol problem around the time he admitted accepting bribes last month.

Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) went to rehab and then asked Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.) to sponsor him in Alcoholics Anonymous after slamming his car into a barricade outside the Capitol earlier this year.

Despite the recent rehab trips, current and former lawmakers say alcohol use on Capitol Hill reflects society at large and is rarer now than in the past.

“The use of alcohol is no more prevalent in Congress than it is in the corporate world or the professional world,” said former Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-Texas), once a heavy drinker, who has been sober for nine years.

Some people on Capitol Hill question the sincerity of lawmakers who seek alcohol treatment only after being accused of committing improper acts.

“When you’ve done wrong, you use the ‘I’m-an-alcoholic card,’ and sometimes I doubt the veracity of that,” said Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), a member of the Addiction, Treatment and Recovery Caucus, which is co-chaired by Ramstad and Kennedy.

Wilson said he does not know whether Foley is an alcoholic or not, but “it’s certainly not an excuse for what happened to him.”

He said there is a long tradition of using an alcohol problem to try to mitigate other misdeeds.

“I think possibly it worked a long time ago,” he said, but now “people make fun of it.”

During late-night votes in the House of Representatives, the faint but unmistakable smell of alcohol sometimes penetrates through the thicker stench of cigar and cigarette smoke. On occasion, booze seems fresh on a lawmaker’s breath.

Former Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D-Texas) said he can count on his fingers the number of times he saw a colleague drunk during his 26-year House career.

But booze is readily available at the countless dinners and receptions that members of Congress are invited to each week.

“I’d say probably 98 percent of them have alcohol available,” Terry said.

“There’s a lot of alcohol that flows on Capitol Hill every night. Every now and then you hear of a member who gets in trouble,” Stenholm said.

The Senate refused to confirm former Sen. John Tower as secretary of Defense in 1989. Among the criticisms leveled at him was a charge that he drank too heavily.

Former Rep. Wilbur Mills, then the chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, began a fall from grace when stripper Fannie Fox famously jumped from his car and into Washington’s tidal basin. He admitted to having a problem with drugs and alcohol after being spotted with her on stage and was forced to relinquish his gavel.

Stenholm said he saw more alcohol abuse on Capitol Hill early in his career.

“It’s hard to quantify,” he said. “There would be less today than 25 years ago.”

Wilson, who served in Congress from 1973 to 1997, agreed. “I think it was more prevalent when I first got there than it was when I left.”

Stenholm said lawmakers were constantly tempted by receptions but that there is also an easy solution.

“You don’t have to go,” he said. “Members of Congress, after they’ve been there for a while, don’t go.”

Though he says he did not enter a program to quit, Wilson said rehabilitation has great value for those who have alcohol problems.

“I’m a great admirer of people who enter rehabilitation,” he said. “I don’t think it’s at all a blight on people’s reputations.”