Stench in the Capitol

March 16, 1992

That House Democratic leaders had to be brow-beaten into full disclosure in the interest-free check-bouncing scandal illustrates how far out of touch they are with the world outside the beltway.

Scandal after scandal has tarnished the image of Congress recently. Its public repute, measured in several polls, verges on contempt. Even so, House Speaker Thomas Foley and his minions thought they could get away with identifying just a handful of the 355 check bouncers. Fired up by a few Republican freshmen, a public outcry was needed to force the Democratic leaders to do what they should have done on their own.

Now the political fallout begins. Dozens of members, sensing the inevitable, have already come clean. Some are backing off previous denials they had ever bounced checks at the House bank. Most are scrambling to explain away their abuse of the check-cashing privilege lest the voters throw them out this spring or fall. Others are mourning the fact that they inadvertently overdrew their accounts and got caught up in the full-disclosure net.

But the meaning of the bank scandal goes far beyond the facts of this particular case and, indeed, beyond the question of how many check kiters are dumped by the voters.

For decades, Congress has been a bastion of special privilege. Members are pampered by all sorts of free or subsidized personal services, wined and dined by lobbyists, flown around the world by the Air Force, granted flexible expense accounts. Insulated and protected by a legislative bureaucracy now 12,000 strong, coddled by a system in which 300 separate subcommittees are staffed by personally assigned aides, protected in their incumbency through mail franking privileges often used for political rather than legitimate public business, lawmakers find themselves criticized not only by the public but by peers.

Legislators pass tough laws protecting individual rights, then exempt themselves in their role as employers. Or, in the latest instance, they propose national health insurance, but exempt themselves so they can participate in their own special plan.

Congress is not called "the Last Plantation" for nothing.

Jack Russ, the House staff official who resigned Thursday, and the members who may lose their seats as a result of the scandal will just be scapegoats if that is all there is to it. The House needs a thorough house cleaning. It may well require new leadership, people who understand that sleaze and privilege can destroy the institution. It certainly demands a hard look at the gulf that separates the representatives from the people they represent. They had better voluntarily join the rest of us in the real world, where interest-free loans are non-existent, or more of them will join us involuntarily.

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