The House jumps

William Safire

October 08, 1991|By William Safire

OBSERVE THE stutter-step of political scandal.

First, troubling news breaks. The charges are brushed aside as trivial by late-waking media or are stonewalled into silence by grim-faced authorities.

Then scandal coverage develops a second wind, whipping up a firestorm that sucks in coverage down to the talk-show level, which sets in motion investigations that bring reform to the political process and sweep out rascals.

Finally, the scandalmongers are derogated by historians as making much fuss over nothing.

What has Housegate, or Rubbergate, or Kitegate -- any gate in a firestorm -- taught us? Mainly this: Thank God for the House of Representatives. It is the glory of American democracy.

No sarcasm intended. When Speaker Tom Foley responded to the wave of revulsion and ridicule by putting an end to the corruption of the House bank last week, he demonstrated a truth that the Founders intended: The House is the political institution most closely in touch with the people.

If a similar display of arrogance leading to corruption had been exposed in the Senate, that club would have closed ranks on the files.

If it had happened in the White House (also exempt from Freedom of Information disclosure), the president's counsel would discreetly put a stop to it, with nobody punished.

But the House, as a body of readily accountable officials, felt the voter heat and saw the ethical light.

The internal pressure on the speaker from the members shifted from "squelch this quickly" to "close the bank and investigate the major corrupters before we all get smeared as deadbeats and are beaten next year -- or before the term-limitation movement turns our seniority sanctuary into a hotel for transients."

So hats off to the House; when the public says "jump," it should and does say "how high?" In this case, the answer is: a little higher.

Forget about the petty embarrassment of members who inadvertently took small interest-free loans erroneously described as "bounced checks"; that's penny-ante stuff.

Instead, the sleepy public-integrity section at the attorney general-free Department of Justice should zero in on the kiting recidivists and big borrowers who deserve censure, if not prosecution.

Something is rotten in the office of the sergeant-at-arms. It goes deeper than the fixing of parking tickets, or extending interest-free credit of $20,000 to members who follow their leader, or influencing of local banks to make political loans.

Jack Russ, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski's protege, is declining interviews presumably because he will be asked about the $10,000 he took out a couple of years ago. That ain't fishbait.

Who directed him to take out that money? To which member did he give the 10 thousand in cash? For what blackmail, gambling or compassionate reason? Did the member ever give him the money back? Or did somebody else reimburse the sergeant-at-arms -- if so, who, why, and were any taxes due?

These are questions about only one incident that the FBI and IRS apparently have deemed too sensitive to investigate. With the folks at home aroused, clean members will now lean on the House ethics committee to get tough on the corrupt.

Perhaps we can get the momentum of congressional self-discipline to extend to the most egregious example of nest-feathering: the abuse of the franking privilege.

This enables incumbents to advertise with self-serving, junk-mail newsletters and "meeting notifications" at a cost to the public of tens of millions each year.

Ah, say the perpetrators of frank abuse, but the voters need to be informed of how wonderfully we're serving them. Here is how to kick that phony argument in the head: require every mailing in an election year to offer "stuffing privilege" to the candidate of the opposition party or to any challenger who can come up with a thousand signatures.

A single-page flier, not printed at taxpayer expense, would add nothing to the cost of the mailing. But incumbents with the free-mail edge would lose the lust for partisan "voter education" at public cost.

Accountability is on a roll. Hooray for the responsive legislators: Term limitation is the specter that is haunting the House, and scandal is the two-by-four that gets the attention of the most mulish member.

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