LESS THAN a year after launching an investigation into the misuse of federal dollars by one of the nation's premier institutions of higher education, Stanford University, members of the House of Representatives find themselves stung by embarrassing revelations that they, too, have incurred some questionable indirect costs in going about their business.
The September General Accounting Office audit revealing that House members bounced 8,331 checks last year at the House bank without having to pay a cent in penalty fees or interest has sent members scurrying to find out to what extent they were involved.
A total of 581 bounced checks were for $1,000 or more. One member reportedly wrote a check for $23,000 on insufficient funds. The story earlier this month that members also left unpaid more than $300,000 in bills at the House restaurant only added salt to the wounds.
How ironic that earlier this year this same legislative body helped undertake a full-scale investigation into improper billing practices used by Stanford to recover overhead costs of federally funded research!
The government routinely awards overhead funds to colleges and universities to cover administrative expenses, depreciation on research facilities and indirect research costs. In its overzealous efforts to recover these costs, Stanford had billed the government for such extravagances as linen for the president's bedroom, depreciation on the university yacht, a fruitwood commode and housing for dead officials.
To quiet the furor and keep his institution's reputation intact, Stanford President Donald Kennedy offered his resignation. Believing, as he put it, that one so closely connected to the problem cannot be an effective part of the solution, Kennedy will leave the post next August after 11 years.
In the wake of the check-kiting and unpaid food bill scandals -- merely the latest in a series of recent ethical improprieties by lawmakers -- resignations are not likely to be forthcoming from Capitol Hill.
House members' reactions have ranged from denial to indignation to contrition. Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank, who denied any personal wrongdoing, chose to shoot the messenger. Frank called the uproar "an appalling waste of the media's desperate resources." Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., told reporters in no uncertain terms that his business was none of theirs. Congressional watchdog John Dingell, D-Mich., who had led the assault of Stanford, offered no comment. Dingell had been identified as one of the check-bouncers.
Resembling the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse, House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., who bounced a $540 check to pay for stereo equipment, took charge of the situation. Foley said that in the future he would hold members of the bank staff accountable for transgressions of this sort, suggesting that by their failure to penalize members for overdrafts, the bank staffers were chiefly at fault. He went on to suggest that all House members be allowed to start over with a clean slate, and he cut off attempts to publish the names of the offenders.
Foley said he would turn the matter over to the House Ethics Committee, chaired by Ohio Rep. Louis Stokes, another of the check-bouncers. And in a final act of damage control, Foley closed the House bank.
At the core of both the Stanford and the House problems is a simple fact of human nature. People often do whatever they can get away with. This tendency so permeates our institutions and occupations that in some cases, like that of used-car dealers, we have come to expect it.
But we also expect a few institutions, such as higher education or the legislative bodies of democratic governments, to be above such behavior. Although individuals who work in them may act out of greed or pettiness, we hold the institutions themselves to a higher moral standard.
Donald Kennedy recognizes this. He recognizes that Stanford's significance transcends his affiliation with it. And because he is so closely identified with the incident -- those were his bed sheets taxpayers paid for, after all -- he recognizes that the quickest way to restore public confidence in the university is to accept responsibility and the consequences that go with it.
The ample egos that inhabit Capitol Hill seem less clear on this point. Rather than accept responsibility and risk the wrath of the voting public, House members are busy shifting the blame, clouding the issue and scrambling desperately to escape the scandal with their reputations intact.
Richard Bader writes from Towson.