Congress Reels From Check-Kiting Scandal
House ethics subcommittee urges disclosing names of worst abusers
WASHINGTON — THE House check-kiting scandal is only one of several abuses of privilege that have dragged Congress's reputation through the mud and pushed public-approval ratings of the institution toward 20 percent - an all-time low.
There was the restaurant scandal, in which scores of members ran up unpaid bills at the House restaurant reportedly totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then there was the House post office scandal, with charges of embezzlement and drug-dealing.
On top of that, this is an election year following redistricting - always a volatile time, as members try to win votes in redrawn districts and, in some cases, run for reelection against a fellow incumbent.
Anti-incumbent feeling and a move for term limits have only been strengthened by Congress's apparent inability to keep itself in line. One member lost in a primary after her opponent highlighted congressional perks. Another member, who acknowledged writing bad checks, was soundly defeated when he ran for governor of Kentucky. He has since stepped out of his race for Congress. Both cases have given everyone the jitters.
"The depression level here is pretty high," says Rep. Porter Goss (R) of Florida.
Senators also come in for rebuke from voters for their sudden late-night maneuver last fall to raise their salaries. Voters also haven't forgotten the Keating Five affair. But this week, it's the House's own bank, now closed, that threatens to derail dozens of members' political careers. The House ethics subcommittee has recommended naming the 24 worst abusers - those who wrote checks valued at more than their next month's pay eight or more times in 39 months.
The top abuser was overdrawn by more than his or her next month's salary for 35 of the 39 months. The top 24 abusers, five of whom are no longer members, overdrew their accounts 391 times. No members of Congress know who is on the list.
House Republicans want the entire list of 355 current and former members released, along with details of their accounts, to voters. (Since the bank operated under no written rules, no formal laws were broken.) House Democrats say the formula devised for defining "worst abusers" fulfills the mandate of the House resolution calling for the investigation. Republicans say such a small disclosure list smacks of cover-up.
"We need full disclosure to take us to the point of having a chance to rebuild the credibility of this institution," Rep. Jerry Lewis (R) of California told reporters.
Members with clean records will likely release affidavits attesting to that fact, so it is possible that by elimination, the public will learn one way or another who is on that list.
Republicans, a minority in the House, may be figuring that a majority on the list are Democrats - and therefore ripe for defeat in November.
The trauma of the House bank scandal could prove to be a watershed for Congress, long a bastion of privilege and comfort. Perks ranging from free postage to convenient medical care and gymnasiums to free airport parking may all come under closer scrutiny. Congressman Goss predicts the list will be trimmed back.
"Through the years Congress has accumulated services and powers and benefits that go well beyond what the Founding Fathers had in mind," says Goss. "Some congressmen do have a mentality that when they win election, they've won the lottery."
SO how can Congress restore a more dignified image? Rep. Leon Panetta (D) of California, chairman of the House Banking Committee, says that beyond the matter of cleaning house internally, Congress must restore its credibility by dealing with the issues that affect Americans.
"The average family is worried about economic stagnation, and there's a feeling that Congress and the president are unable to deal with the challenges," he says. "In that atmosphere, other issues start to take on greater significance."
While not excusing the excesses of some House members, Mr. Panetta points out that the abuses at the House bank have gone on unchecked for years - decades, according to the investigation - and so failure also rests at the door of the bank's administrators. One reform that may result is appointment of a House administrator to keep a tighter rein on what has become the metropolis of Capitol Hill.
Tom Mann, a veteran Congress-watcher at the Brookings Institution, counsels putting the bank scandal in perspective. In the private sector, he points out, banks provide an overdraft service - and just because a business takes advantage of it doesn't mean it's a bad business.
In the House, Mr. Mann agrees, "there's a group of abusers that must be dealt with." But he also sees a "feeding frenzy" that is causing the story to spiral upward, fueled by a disheartened Republican minority that is hoping to score points.