"I was surprised at that," said Nancy Dodson, vice president of the League of Women Voters in Tulsa, Okla.
Rep. Dan Miller (R., Fla.) said that he was sure Rostenkowski's troubles would reflect badly on others in Congress, but that they wouldn't necessarily bring a widespread backlash. Already, he said, people in his district are talking about the case with less outrage than dark humor.
"It hurts just a little bit," Miller said, "kind of like Jay Leno jokes."
The fact is, Congress is not much on the minds of Americans most of the time. The House and Senate land near the bottom when people rank the performance of important institutions. But when a Louis Harris survey in April asked people to identify the country's major problems, Congress came in 22d among 27 issues on a list led by health care and crime.
While pollsters regularly find that about two-thirds of Americans disapprove of congressional performance, roughly two-thirds give their representatives high marks.
Still, years of congressional gridlock, self-indulgence and seeming ineptitude have increased the distance between citizens and representatives.
"The percentage of people who disapprove of Congress has been over 60 percent for four straight years," said Republican pollster Bill McInturff.
Bud Clark, mayor of Portland, Ore., from 1985 until his frustrated retirement 18 months ago, complained that "there is complete negativism on people's parts, with no answers."
He pointed to the term-limitation movement and efforts to recall elected officials and said, "All these people want to cut down trees, and they have no idea how to replace them. . . . There's a self-destructive mood people are in."
Such feelings fired the Ross Perot phenomenon in the last election, but they also gave Bill Clinton the rhetorical theme of change that carried him into office.
Now he, too, is considered untrustworthy by huge portions of the country. He faces investigation by a special prosecutor scrutinizing investments the Clintons made while he was Arkansas governor, and an Arkansas woman has taken him to court, accusing him of sexual harassment.
And now Rostenkowski, Clinton's prime congressional ally in the health- care-reform effort, the man for whom he flew to Chicago to support in a Democratic primary in March, stands accused.
"This sort of thing," said Washington public opinion analyst Andrew Kohut, "has lost its shock value."
"It's just reinforcing the cynicism," said Kohut, who directs the Times- Mirror Center for the People and the Press. "The public is already so cynical about politicians in Washington that . . . this will not raise an eyebrow in some respects. . . .
"But certainly it doesn't help voter participation."
Dodson, 68, the League of Women Voters officer in Tulsa, has spent her life advocating good government.
"You don't have to be goody-goody to want government to be effective and honest," she said. "People have that feeling."
And then, half-irritated and half-puzzled, she asked the question at the heart of it all: "If that is what you want, how are you going to get it, folks?"
Gregory Spears of the Inquirer Washington Bureau contributed to this article. It also includes information from the Associated Press.