Check 'Kiting': Self-Righteous Anger Hides the Sins of the Manipulators

TRB

March 19, 1992|By TRB

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Don't you have anything better to worry about than the House Bank?

One of the most entertaining things about the news is its arbitrariness. When is some story a huge outrage worthy of screaming headlines on Page One, and when does it deserve burial on page 23?

Just lately, the rubber checks at the so-called House Bank have been getting the screaming Page One treatment. Two years ago, it was different.

On Feb. 7, 1990, the General Accounting Office, the Congress' investigative arm, released a report on the House Bank. The Washington Post reported it the next day, on page 23.

That article, by Walter Pincus, contained all the major elements of today's scandal: the existence of a special ''bank'' where House members' pay was deposited; the fact that members could overdraw their accounts without penalty; the fact that many members were abusing this privilege. A computer search indicates that only one other newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, picked up this story -- running it two months late, April 8, on page 11.

Even before 1990, the House Bank was no secret. Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, reported in 1988 that some freshman senators, envying the ''efficiency'' (!) of the House side, wanted a bank of their own where ''members who overdraw their accounts are not penalized.''

According to last week's Ethics Committee report, the GAO complained as early as 1954 that ''some members frequently overdraw their accounts, sometimes in excess of their monthly salary and expenses . . . and one third of all active members'' were in arrears during one typical period. The GAO's regular reports to the Congress on the workings of the House Bank have been public since 1977. These reports show that more bad checks were written in the 1960s and 1970s than in recent years.

Of course, the Republican politicians now waxing self-righteous about the bank's casual practices did not need GAO reports to know all about them long ago. Minority Whip Newt Gingrich shamelessly compares himself to Vaclav Havel for having the courage to challenge the House leadership on this, although he himself has admitted to 20 or more bad checks.

These admissions by Republican miscreants are based on their own records, not on information supplied by investigators. So no one hid their own bad checks from them, as they try to imply.

The fact that the abuse was widely known for years does indeed reflect poorly on the Democratic leadership. But what does that same fact say about the sincerity of Mr. Gingrich's present outrage?

It's a funny kind of ''scandal'' that has been public knowledge for years if not decades. The shock the politicians and propagandists claim to feel is strictly of the Captain Renault variety.

This is not meant to absolve the Congress completely. The bank's operation was an embarrassing, amateurish mess. Speaker Tom Foley badly bungled the cleanup operation. There were some real abusers of the overdraw privilege.

Furthermore, it is hard not to take some pleasure in seeing your typical congressman -- who lives for re-election and who figures he's thought of everything -- being hit with this unexpected pie in the face.

But if a tidal wave of public revulsion sweeps a third of the Congress out of office over a matter like this, as some are predicting, you've got to wonder about the seriousness of the American electorate. What serious citizen tolerates a $400-billion deficit but draws the line at a $400 rubber check?

If 125 members of Congress were voted out over their failure to enact a capital-gains tax cut, or over too much foreign aid, that would be a mistaken but responsible exercise in democracy. If a similar massacre occurs over the House Bank, that will be a joke.

Or is the House Bank ''symbolic'' -- a ''metaphor'' for something larger, such as out-of-control government spending? That is the justification of those who are busy fanning the flames of public outrage.

That is always the justification invoked by the promoters of our increasingly symbolic politics. Whether the trivial, irrelevant, or wholly concocted issue is the Pledge of Allegiance or rubber checks or whatever comes next, there is always a fancy metaphorical explanation available. Meanwhile the hard, genuine issues of politics are evaded.

Even now, rich Washington-based political consultants of both parties are plotting how they will use the check-kiting scandal as an anti-Washington theme in next fall's campaigns.

The manipulators of this issue are more a part of the insular ''Beltway'' culture than their victims and the issue itself is more of an ''inside the Beltway'' phenomenon than the vice it purports to attack.

It's hard to go against the tide on an issue like this one without getting branded an elitist and being told that you ''just don't get it'' -- in the reigning political cliche of the season. Check bouncing, you get told, is something ordinary people can relate to.

This, it seems to me, is the more elitist position: that ordinary folks need to be spoon-fed mock issues they can ''relate'' to because they can't handle the sophisticated ones. The truly democratic position is to say to your fellow citizens: Get serious. Grow up.

TRB wrote this commentary for The New Republic.

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