Another Stench on Capitol Hill

August 05, 1992

Simmering under the surface of a torpid Washington summer is another congressional scandal in the making with more explosive potential than the check-bouncing House bank. Since it is thus far in the sparring rounds, it has not attracted a great deal of attention. And it may not amount to much more than partisan jabs with a few bloody noses on well-known faces. But because one of the faces is very well known, the possibility of serious political damage is real.

The House Post Office, a branch of the U.S. Post Office but operated by House of Representatives employees under House control, was a cesspool of political patronage, gross incompetence, flouted regulations and pandering to influential members. That much is clear from a report by a special bipartisan House task force. Like the House bank, the post office was created to perform a necessary function but was perverted into a service bureau whose principal goal was to do favors for House insiders -- most, but not all of them, Democrats.

What is not yet clear is whether there was outright theft in the post office scandal. Some members seem to have bought an awful lot of stamps, considering that almost all their official mail requires no postage.

At the head of the list is Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, the Chicago Democrat who is chairman of the powerful tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. Searchers of House records calculated that his office bought nearly $25,000 worth in five years, double the amount of anyone else in the Illinois delegation. More serious, if yet unsubstantiated publicly, is the report that a House employee has told federal prosecutors Mr. Rostenkowski got $20,000 in cash for vouchers that were supposed to purchase stamps.

Federal prosecutors in Washington have subpoenaed Mr. Rostenkowski and two Pennsylvania Democrats, both chairmen of key House subcommittees, to tell a grand jury what they know of the House post office and perhaps to explain things in their subpoenaed records. All three refused, and the prosecutors backed off.

The congressmen might have a point. The Constitution limits executive or judicial authority over legislators in their official duties -- if that is in fact what is involved here. And the investigation has a partisan tinge to it. But the spectacle of three members of the increasingly discredited congressional old guard taking refuge in the Fifth Amendment doesn't go down very well this campaign season. Not with all the other sludge that has been pumped from congressional institutions this year.

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