House Republicans celebrated April Fools Day by turning on their own leadership and the Bush administration to reject a bill that would permit the savings and loan bailout to continue. No matter that their gesture will cost taxpayers an extra $2.6 million a day and will have to be rescinded. GOP ideologues wanted to show they could be as rebellious as Democrats who the previous day scorned their own leaders. They succeeded.
Such high-jinks, coinciding with the naming of the "worst abusers" in the House bank scandal, demonstrate that Congress is paralyzed by fear and loathing and a plunge to record lows in public esteem. Members have never seen anything like it.
Already 43 lawmakers -- a tenth of the House membership -- have announced they will retire or seek other offices. Another five incumbents have been defeated in primaries. Redistricting and public outrage could easily produce a new Congress with more than 100 freshmen.
So great is the fear of repudiation and defeat at the polls that it was an easy vote to reject the Resolution Trust Corp.'s routine appeal to spend the remaining $17 billion of funds already authorized to take over insolvent thrift institutions. Conservative Republicans thus could show their displeasure with government regulation. Their preference is to let sick S&Ls limp along rather than cause upset in their home districts. As for liberal Democrats, the GOP defection gave them an opportunity to show their displeasure with the Bush administration's election-year slowdown in dealing with ailing thrifts.
In the Maryland delegation, Reps. Helen Delich Bentley, R-2nd, Beverly Byron, D-6th, and Kweisi Mfume, D-7th, voted against the RTC extension.
What is happening on Capitol Hill would be laughable if it were not so damaging. When President Bush assailed the special privileges enjoyed by members of Congress, Speaker Thomas S. Foley responded by denouncing White House perks -- this from a politician who had the Air Force fly bicycles to him and his wife while vacationing in England. When a House ethics subcommittee finally named the worst 22 abusers of interest-free overdrafts on the House bank, one of the accused said he had never endured "such a mean-spirited, ugly and dehumanizing atmosphere."
Only self-pity, not contrition, has been heard from the "Check-kiting 22." Since polls show the public believes -- wrongly -- the House bank mess will cost taxpayers money, lawmakers still to be named for lesser abuses don't want to be linked with S&Ls, banks, debt limits, etc. They cop out.
Because Congress is so in need of thorough-going reform, the current trauma may be just what the institution requires to get back in touch with constituents. But in the meantime, public business is being neglected by too many lawmakers who are so fearful of the voters they are taking positions they know are wrong.
The situation is deplorable.