Perceived excesses rile common man

CONGRESS' WELL-FOUNDED FEAR

March 21, 1992|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Staff Writer

CHARLOTTE HALL -- Early crops sprouting along Route 5 this spring include the campaign signs of Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a high-ranking Maryland Democrat brushed by the House banking scandal.

In one farm field after another, passing motorists see the candidate's last name underscored by an elegant, flowing motif of Maryland's flag.

Mr. Hoyer, who admitted last week that he wrote four bad checks, has to hope that voters will think of him in terms of the gold in the state flag and not the red -- which might remind them of huge federal deficits, of the half-billion-dollar savings and loan TC bailout, and of House members who wrote bad checks with impunity.

Already, several of Mr. Hoyer's colleagues have been defeated or have chosen to retire under pressure of the check scandal.

Fear of widespread retribution is rife in the halls of Congress -- and in towns like Charlotte Hall and Mechanicsville, one might conclude that the fear is well-founded.

"I tell you, without mentioning any bad words, if I had done that, my butt would be in jail," said Joseph F. Havlock, 66, a retired railroad worker.

"They [Congress members] are not better than we are. We ought to take everyone of them out of there," he said. "Let these guys work in a coal mine, and they'd understand how people feel."

In the past, U.S. voters have tended to exonerate their own representative while indicting Congress as an institution. They might have thought it unfair to blame individuals for collective decisions on matters of great complexity.

But in the checkbook saga, voters such as Mr. Havlock find excesses of exquisite specificity. Past and present House members repeatedly wrote checks against insufficient funds -- without suffering an overdraft charge, without paying interest on money lent by the bank to cover the check and without even a tinge of embarrassment until now.

"Politicians don't believe the rules that apply to regular people apply to them," wrote the Lexington Park Enterprise on its editorial page last week. "They think they deserve all this special treatment."

This scandal comes at a decidedly awkward time for Mr. Hoyer and many of his colleagues. They are running in new districts, drawn to reflect population shifts. Mr. Hoyer's new district runs from his Prince George's County base to the southernmost tip of the state.

Bad checks are not the calling card he would have chosen.

But there they are, four of them, in the local headlines and in the editorials. To make matters worse, Mr. Hoyer denied having written any bad checks during a candidates forum in Hughesville, just north of here, several weeks ago.

Did he lie? Having covered the only bad check he knew of on the day he learned of it, he explained, he didn't think he had bounced a check.

His Republican opponent, Larry Hogan Jr., insists that he did lie.

Just how the issue will play over the long election campaign is difficult to judge, according to Rick Boyd, Enterprise editor. Compared with those who wrote hundreds of bad checks, Mr. Hoyer's lapses might seem inconsequential, he said.

The challenger's thrust could be blunted a bit by disclosures that members of the Bush Cabinet also bounced checks -- more than Mr. Hoyer.

Still, the timing of these disclosures is ominous.

People are reading about the banking foibles of their representatives at the same time they are combing their personal financial records, including checkbooks, to prepare their income taxes.

"I never bring it up," said Julia Forbes, a public accountant in Charlotte Hall, "but a lot of my clients do. They can't understand how our representatives could do such a thing."

But won't they eventually relent and acknowledge that everybody has bounced a check?

Ms. Forbes, pausing over her lunch, shakes her head and smiles at such a permissive view of life.

"We're unsophisticated little people. We think when rules are issued, we have to abide by them. Writing bad checks is not allowed so we don't do it," she said.

The excuses don't wash, either.

"Some of them are not even ashamed," Mr. Havlock said. "I know it's not public money, but that's not the point of it. It's no wonder we're going down in this world."

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