House bank scandal backfires on GOP

April 16, 1992|By Clifford Krause | Clifford Krause,New York Times News Service

SAN DIEGO -- Only a month ago, Republicans heralded the House bank scandal as a great opportunity to retake control of Congress. But now the war cry is beginning to sound more like hhTC whimper.

The number of Republicans bruised by the affair is growing. And with each new casualty, tensions grow, too.

The latest Republican casualty is a six-term representative from San Diego, Bill Lowery, writer of 300 overdrawn checks totaling $104,000.

Mr. Lowery withdrew from a tough primary race Tuesday because he said he was tired of the "mud-wrestle" that politics had become. Because of reapportionment, he was forced to run against Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War who had begun a fierce radio campaign attacking Mr. Lowery's check-writing practices.

Mr. Lowery's withdrawal follows the decision earlier this month by Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota, secretary of the House Republican Conference, to leave Capitol Hill rather than try to explain his 125 overdrawn checks to his constituents.

Now, normally partisan Republicans like Mr. Lowery and Mr. Weber are criticizing the partisanship of colleagues who whipped up public outrage over the House bank scandal.

"Somehow, this belief that you can throw a grenade and control where the explosion occurs is nonsense," Mr. Lowery said in an interview. "It makes you wonder why they ran for Congress in the first place."

There may be more explosions to day, when the names of every House member who has overdrawn his or her account in a 39-month auditing period, and the number of overdrawn checks they wrote, are scheduled to be made public.

Mr. Weber, who was first elected to the House in 1980, said in a telephone interview that Republican leaders and freshmen lawmakers who pushed the bank issue had done Congress and the party a disservice because "a campaign devoid of a substantive agenda is not going to do the country any good."

Mr. Lowery's and Mr. Weber's criticisms might be dismissed as the self-serving comments of those who have been stung by the bank scandal. But their remarks have been echoed by Republican lawmakers like Reps. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois and Jim Leach of Iowa, who do not have check problems to explain.

Much of their pique is directed at a group of junior Republican backbenchers who were not satisfied when the House speaker, Thomas S. Foley, announced last fall that the bank would be closed because of a history of sloppy accounting and lax rules.

Counseled by Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the Republican whip, the group wanted to publicize the names of scores of lawmakers who had abused their banking privileges.

According to the plan, far more Democrats than Republicans would suffer -- Democrats hold almost a 100-vote edge in the House -- and the Republicans could then end more than three decades of Democratic rule over the House.

A subcommittee of the House ethics committee recommended that only a list of the most egregious check-writing offenders be published, but four Republican members of the full committee dissented and, with Mr. Gingrich's aggressive support, eventually won the day.

All but four of the 22 members who were found to be the worst offenders were Democrats. But some of the most influential Republicans have been singed by the firestorm.

Among them are Reps. Chalmers P. Wylie of Ohio, with 575 overdrawn checks; Duncan Hunter of California, 399 checks, and Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma, 389 checks.

Mr. Edwards, who is chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, was the subject of an unusual letter distributed this week by House Republican leaders, including Mr. Gingrich. The letter urged Mr. Edwards' Republican colleagues to contribute to the campaign fund of the Oklahoma lawmaker, who is facing heavy opposition at home from within his own party.

Mr. Gingrich, who stormed against the Democratic management of the House bank, has become considerably quieter of late after he found that the handful of checks he thought he had overdrawn is more like 20 or 30.

Mr. Gingrich was uncharacteristically silent during a heated floor debate last week on alternative plans to change the House management, as the Republican caucus fumbled its effort to coordinate tactics.

Uncertainty over whether to duck or attack on the House bank issue was underscored by a recent Republican campaign poll showing that incumbents who overdrew their accounts four times or more, or signed overdrawn checks amounting to more than $1,000, may have to find new careers after November.

"That description describes the entire San Diego delegation," Mr. Lowery told reporters as he withdrew, referring to his three local colleagues, all Republicans.

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