THE BCCI banking scandal came to a head last week. No, not the one involving the shadowy, globe-sprawling Bank of Credit and Commerce International; the one involving the Bank of Congressional Carelessness and Incompetence.Skip to next paragraph
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In voting last week to release the names of all 355 current and past members of the House of Representatives who wrote bad checks against their accounts with the now-closed House bank - in some cases for tens of thousands of dollars - the lawmakers took the proper course. Any action short of complete disclosure would have deepened public distrust of Capitol Hill.
Congress needs to restore the public's confidence in the integrity, conscientiousness, and competency of its members. The institution's reputation has been badly tarnished of late (a recent Washington Post poll found only a 22 percent approval rating for Congress - the lowest level ever).
Some of the criticisms are unfair: Most members of Congress today are honest, hard working, and dedicated to public service. Even so, Congress has added to public distrust, even disgust, by larding its members with perks, exempting itself from antidiscrimination and other laws, and failing to reform a system of campaign financing that gives off whiffs of corruption. Even though the check-writing scandal involved no public money (House members were in effect covering each other's overdrafts), it played in to public perceptions of ethical laxity and fiscal profligacy.
In view of this, it's dismaying that the House leadership tried to finesse the matter. Speaker Thomas Foley failed to grasp the explosiveness of the issue when it came to light last fall, and early last week the leadership endorsed an Ethics Committee recommendation to disclose the names of only 24 major offenders. It took a revolt from Republican members (for partisan reasons) that was quickly joined by most Democratic members (for survival reasons) to pressure Mr. Foley into accepting full disclosure.
Some incumbents will pay a heavy price for their checkbook breeziness. But voters will probably be fair to those properly chastened representatives whose lapses appear to have been rare and unintentional.