Congress: World Unto Itself

April 20, 1992

They still don't get it. House Speaker Thomas S. Foley continues to play childish word games about the technical definition of check bouncing. House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich continues to brag about the partisan damage to the Democrats he helped orchestrate while sluffing off as simple "errors" his $26,000 in overdrafts in the House bank. Other House members rush to the microphones to proclaim that no laws were broken. Marylanders, at least, were spared that sorry spectacle. Its delegation was relatively free of the taint.

The gulf separating most members of Congress from their constituents could not be more clear. So what if no laws were broken? So what if the House rules were not dented? So what if no public money was lost? They're not the issues. What outrages the public is the long-standing abuse of privilege by the members of Congress who lead such coddled lives in their subsidized restaurants, travel facilities, gyms, stores and post offices.

Political incompetence displayed in dealing with the mess underlines the bankruptcy of leadership. The release Thursday of the list of 303 more overdrafters (a term that might satisfy the nitpickers) is the final blunder. The leaders clumsily maneuvered themselves into being forced to release the names of any member who overdrew an account even once. But the amounts of these overdrafts remain a mystery. The public still has no clear idea who were the real offenders or who were victims of poor bank management. Token reforms will not make it all go away.

Congress is in a sorry state. Some of its best members are leaving voluntarily in disgust. With leaders like the amiable fumbler Mr. Foley and the sly pit bull Mr. Gingrich, frustration is inevitable. But most of the members themselves are out of touch with reality. Mr. Foley thinks adding a few bucks to charges for use of the House gym is an adequate response. Similarly, some of the members think dumping Mr. Foley as speaker next year will solve their problems. They're kidding themselves.

Perhaps the representatives will return to the Capitol from their spring recess fully appreciating the depth of public disdain for Congress. The evidence is all around them: in some unexpected primary defeats, in the warnings of some of their colleagues, on the radio talk shows, in the letters columns of newspapers, on the streets of their home towns. The message is clear. Congress has been functioning as if it were a world unto itself, exempt from the rules and mores the rest of us live by. Unless its members get that message, many more will be back among us than they expect.

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