WASHINGTON — BY voting to comply with a special counsel's subpoena of all House bank records, the House of Representatives has moved to expedite the conclusion of its check-kiting scandal - a long, embarrassing fiasco that has only deepened the record lows in public opinion toward Congress.
Before the vote, minority leader Robert Michel (R) of Illinois sought to allay concerns and ensure that the detailed financial information on almost every member would remain private. In a letter to Mr. Michel, Justice Department-appointed special counsel Malcolm Wilkey gave assurances that the information would be subject to "grand-jury secrecy" and bank privacy rules.
But many Democrats were not to be assuaged, expressing their regret on the House floor Wednesday night that the dispute between two branches of government - legislative and executive - would not be mediated by the third branch, the judiciary.
Earlier the House voted down, 284 to 131, a resolution that would have thrown into court the dispute over whether all the bank records, and not just those on accounts that had had overdrafts, should be handed over to the special counsel.
"I don't think putting it in the hands of a district court judge could be called a coverup," said Jeffrey Biggs, spokesman for the speaker of the House.
But in a week once again dominated by the bank scandal, a majority of members seemed eager to get on with the business of legislating.
Two weeks ago, House Speaker Tom Foley declared the House bank mess over. The full list of 325 past and current House members who had written at least one overdraft at the bank over a 39-month period had been revealed. End of a humiliating chapter in the history of Congress, it seemed.
But the speaker should have known better. By then, he was already embroiled in a battle with ex-Judge Wilkey over the subpoena of the House bank records. The fight burst into the open a week ago when Mr. Foley circulated a letter to all of his colleagues denouncing the "sweeping and unprecedented scope" of Wilkey's request. Wilkey has stated that he has found possible evidence of a criminal "check-kiting scheme" at the bank, and therefore needs the data to investigate further.
Since the dispute went public, Congress has once again been consumed with itself. And once again, the spotlight has turned to Foley and his leadership style.
Prof. Jim Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, calls Foley the "Quaker speaker" - he builds a consensus, then runs to the front of the pack and leads.
"This is a unique situation," says Professor Thurber. "He was trying to reflect the will of members, but that's hard to determine, because many didn't know themselves what they wanted."
House members were caught in a no-win situation. If they voted to go along with the release of all House bank records, they could be perceived as sacrificing the independence of the legislative branch. But if they voted to withhold the information, they could be accused of a coverup.
House Banking Committee chairman Henry Gonzalez (D) of Texas has threatened to sue to block the subpoena.
Making matters worse for Foley was the defection of the Republican House leadership after it had agreed that the broad subpoena was uncalled for. Before the dispute had gone public, minority leader Michel had circulated his own "dear colleague" letter, explaining in more measured terms why the House should not comply with the subpoena.
But at a House Republican caucus early this week, the more confrontational wing of the party's House membership apparently brought Michel to its side, and thus ended bipartisan cooperation on the matter.
Michel's about-face on the subpoena question demonstrates the conflict in the Republican Party, says Thurber. Under the party's old congressional style, in cases like this, it would seek first to protect the institution and not to seek partisan gain.
But with the rise in the House ranks of Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia and his followers - whose stated aim is to tear down the institution so it can be rebuilt more to their liking - Michel's conciliatory style has been overshadowed.