Congress's Own Banking Crisis

CONGRESS, already held in low regard by many Americans, slipped another notch in public esteem recently with the disclosure that scores of members of the House of Representatives routinely overdrew their accounts at a private members' bank, without any interest or penalties. The issue is more serious than a subsequent revelation that many members are also delinquent in paying their House restaurant tabs, as it gives the appearance that lawmakers have pampered themselves with sweetheart banking privilegesunavailable to most people. According to an audit by the General Accounting Office, in the first half of 1990 House members wrote 4,325 checks against insufficient funds, and 134 members bounced a total of 581 checks of $1,000 or more. Some accounts were overdrawn by thousands of dollars, for up to four weeks. Speaker Thomas Foley, who has condemned colleagues who abused the House bank's check-cashing leniency, has nonetheless refused to identify the members involved. He also has emphasized that members' deposits in the House bank are not insured, and thus the overdrafts have cost taxpayers nothing. True enough, but, still, for many Americans the sloppy (at best) behavior doesn't pass the "smell test." Taken aback by the furor in the media and among constituents, the House voted last week to close the private bank. By itself the mess ("scandal" is too strong) is an unsavory but easily remedied matter. Yet it has reverberated through an electorate that is widely disenchanted with and distrustful of Congress. Its symbolic significance vastly exceeds its actual importance. Public unhappiness with Congress is rooted partly in substantive concerns, notably Congress's inability to bring the deficit under control. But it's also rooted in a growing perception that members of Congress regard themselves as subject to a different set of rules from those that the rest of us must abide by, and that they have arrogantly larded themselves with perks that exceed the requirements of office. Whether these perceptions are wholly fair, they are highly combustible. The check-bouncing affair has thrown gasoline onto the fire of public resentment. Most regrettably, it is fueling calls for term limits on lawmakers by people who, sincerely or from partisanship, attribute all governmental ills to entrenched incumbency. As we have stressed before, term limits are the wrong remedy for problems related to uncompetitive elections, the political influence of special interests, and questionable campaign financing. Each of those problems can and should be addressed directly. Term limits are a gimmick, a cop-out: They rob voters of choices, throw out honorable and effective public servants along with venal and ineffectual ones, and strengthen the power on Capitol Hill of unelected staff members and bureaucrats. Term limits aren't the answer. But sometimes members of Congress seem bent on bringing such limits on themselves.

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