Congress' Own Bank Scandal

March 10, 1992

Some people just never get the word. With Congress as an institution in increasingly bad odor with the public, some of its leaders refuse to face up to the implications of the Great House Bank Scandal. Dozens, perhaps scores, of House members used what was really just supposed to be a payroll office as a personal, interest-free, unlimited line of credit. Nice perk, considering that their constituents were paying 12 to 19 percent interest for the same service. The so-called bank has been shut down, but an accounting of who abused the system is yet to be made public.

Splitting on partisan (and generational) lines, the House Ethics Committee is recommending that the names of only the worst abusers be made public. Four Republican freshmen are balking, arguing that more names of congressional check kiters should be disclosed. Leaders from both parties are trying to decide where to draw the line. While some real substantive issues are involved in this decision, the process reeks of election-year politics.

There are practical problems with full disclosure. The ethics committee has been able to compile a list of all members who have overdrawn their accounts since July 1988. But the committee has not had time to reconstruct more than a small percentage of the accounts. So it knows whether a member ever bounced a check, and how often. But it doesn't know in more than 20 per cent of the cases how badly the member overdrew the account. A list of all offenders would not really distinguish between callous abusers and careless members who inadvertently wrote a check for a little more than was in the account. The worst abusers would get lost in a crowd of less serious offenders and sloppy bookkeepers.

Still, the public is entitled to full disclosure. Innocent House members are entitled to have their names cleared. There should be a way of naming all members who wrote a bad check during the period under examination while still identifying those who unscrupulously used the bank as a personal slush fund. A lot of House members are going to have a harder time in November because of this scandal. Supplying voters with a valid hit list is the least the congressional leadership can do

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