Congress Learns How Avalanches Get Rolling

GEORGE F. WILL

March 16, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- With the check-kiting scandal gnawing like a terrier on the ankle of the House of Representatives, that body's designated ethicists displayed an ingenuity that might better be invested in solving the nation's problems than in covering up Congress'. They devised the following rococo rule:

The public would be permitted to know the names of those members who in eight different months of a 39-month period wrote bad checks to the House bank totaling more than the member's next month's paycheck.

This short-lived rule, which would have shielded all but 19 current and 5 former members, ignited this suspicion: Someone important must have bounced checks in those amounts for seven months. Such cynicism may be mistaken but is understandable because Congress has become an incumbents-protection machine.

Nearly 200 members in at least one month bounced checks valued at more than their next month's salary. One busy beaver did so in 35 of the 39 months studied. But the ethics committee obeyed a congressional reflex: When in doubt, gerrymander.

The rule tried to gerrymander the scandal, to carve out a sphere of safety for most incumbents. It would have cloaked in anonymity the member who wrote more than 850 bad checks totaling more than $150,000, and the member whose more than 400 bad checks exceeded $180,000. These members were not covered by the rule that was ostensibly devised to cover all members who wrote bad checks ''routinely'' and ''repeatedly'' and in ''significant'' amounts. Predictably, the rule was swept away by the avalanche of public derision.

The abuse of the bank exemplified the kind of obtuseness that prevented Congress' ethicists from anticipating that avalanche. Both the abuse and the obtuseness are products of the crippled judgment produced by prolonged incumbency in offices insulated from serious challenges.

An avalanche can begin when a small pebble moves a larger stone which jars boulders and a mountain moves. Around 1998, someone will write the story of the movement that by then will have passed the constitutional amendment limiting congressional terms. That writer will note September 18, 1991. That day a pebble -- a report on abuse of the private bank the

House ran for itself -- moved. It began an avalanche that altered the shape of Capitol Hill.

In response to the report, the House ethics committee examined a 39-month period when 355 current and former members wrote about 20,000 bad checks, some for six-figure sums. In one calendar year members bounced 8,331 checks.

The ethics committee fastidiously declined to investigate the ''motivation and intent'' of the check-writers. But motivation and intent matter to any ethical assessment of an act. It is not hard to imagine the motivation of the member who wrote 996 bad checks in 39 months -- more than one for every day of every work week. Some people were giving themselves interest-free loans for investment purposes.

When this mess first oozed into view, Rep. Bill Clay, D-Mo., said he was ''ashamed'' -- of the public for being interested. Mr. Clay is in his 12th term, so perhaps he should not be expected to understand the world out there, where benighted people do not understand private banks with no rules limiting interest-free loans. Speaker Tom Foley promptly said, ''This is a matter that is over and done with.'' Mr. Foley is in his 14th term.

Some of the members who are guilty of gross abuse of a privilege that they never should have had (a preposterous private bank; they are too important to use a regular bank) are benefiting from the incompetence that enabled them to become guilty. The bank was run in such a slipshod manner (imagine -- by the people who produce the federal budget) that some fair-minded House members say information should not be quickly released because no one can be sure who did what, or why. Some checks may have bounced because the ninnies running the bank did not record deposits promptly.

There is no guarantee that all the information will be entirely fair, or, for that matter, that voters will respond fairly even to fair information. But, then, cries for fairness are not deeply moving when coming from incumbents who have arranged for themselves so many advantages that in 1990 they enjoyed a 96 percent re-election rate.

The check-kiting abuse is like Watergate, not in the sense that it involves anti-constitutional acts, but in two lesser but still important senses: The attempted stonewalling and cover-up have been more infuriating to the nation than the original offenses were. And both the offenses and the attempted cover-up testify to an arrogance born of insularity in office.

The check-kiting itself was a small pebble placed on the scale weighing the arguments in favor of term limits. The five-month mishandling of the scandal has added a boulder.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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