Fallout from Bankgate

March 19, 1992

The House bank scandal claimed its first real victim in Illinois Tuesday. Rep. Charles Hayes lost largely because he was one of the worst abusers of the system, guilty of writing 716 checks for which he had insufficient funds on deposit. Many more victims may yet come to grief.

For a disaffected public, Bankgate is only the latest in a long list of transgressions that have brought Congress into disrepute. As a result, the anti-incumbent movement is in full flood -- a product of S&L scandals, the forced resignation of a speaker of the House, sneaky congressional pay raises, the proliferation of perks and the inability of an arrogant Congress to solve problems. The mood behind the movement has been building for some time. In the 1990 general election, the average vote percentage for incumbents was the lowest since 1974, when 92 incumbents quit or were defeated.

Three ousted incumbents (two others lost to fellow incumbents in merged districts) may not seem like a large number. There have been primaries in 58 congressional districts in Maryland, Mississippi, Texas and Illinois this year. Incumbents won in 55. But that total of three after only four states' primaries has to be seen in historical context. In 1990 and 1988, one representative lost in a primary. In 1986, three; in 1984, two; in 1982, four.

More non-incumbents are running this year than in recent memory. They have raised far more money than non-incumbents in the recent past. The editors of Congressional Quarterly have predicted the 1992 elections will produce more new House members than any year since 1982, when 81 freshmen were elected.

Some look at the raging anti-Washington mood around the country and predict 1992 will easily exceed the 92 of 1974 -- perhaps even the 118-member turnover of 1948. It would be healthy if this public mood translated into something of this magnitude. The biggest problem with the House of Representatives is that private campaign finance arrangements and public operational perks make ousting incumbents extremely difficult. A goodly amount of turnover is vital to the well-being of a representative body. There has not been nearly enough in the House for some time.

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