WASHINGTON — JUDGMENT day is coming for Congress's check-kiters.
After weeks of grueling closed meetings, a subcommittee of six House members is gearing up to make its recommendations for action to the full House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct as early as March 4.
If the panel proposes the solution it is expected to - publicly identify the worst offenders and let their constituents decide if they should be reelected - some members may decide it's time to retire from Congress. With congressional campaigns gearing up, time is of the essence. The "worst offenders" list could contain two dozen or more members.
The scandal broke last September when the General Accounting Office disclosed that members of the House had been, in effect, getting free loans from the House bank by writing checks they couldn't cover and expecting the bank not to bounce them as it waited for the next payday or two. The bank has since been closed.
Dozens of congressmen, including leading members from both parties, owned up to the occasional bookkeeping error. But they are not among the big-time offenders the ethics committee is expected to expose: members who allegedly got the "float" on hundreds or thousands of dollars in checks on a routine basis.
The six-member subcommittee is caught between a desire to settle the matter to the public's satisfaction and not dragging Congress through the mud any more than it already has been.
Public opinion against Congress as a whole has been running high, fueling a move to limit members' terms.
Reflecting accusations that Congress wants to "protect its own," an aide to an ethics committee member questioned the notion that "the voters" will exact revenge on the offenders.
"If a person were found to be sloppy in record keeping or personal financial affairs, it doesn't mean he can't be a good representative for his district," says the aide, insisting on the subcommittee's obligation to keep its proceedings secret.
"Hopefully, the electorate wouldn't make its decision on this one item. There's a danger of symbolism creeping in."
One sticky aspect of the subcommittee's work is that the bank operated under no formal rules. Therefore, technically, no rules were broken.
If the House were to decide to impose sanctions on offenders, it would first have to decide what the standard should be. And if only the worst offenders are to be exposed, the House will have to decide where to draw the line.
These offenders are likely to get advance warning from the House, says the aide. That way, they can plan their defenses - or their retirement parties.