Ever since a scandal exploded in the U.S. House of Representatives last year over the widespread practice of writing bad checks on the House Bank, members have been running scared. The 10-4 vote the other day by the House Ethics Committee to release only the names of the 24 worst offenders is not an adequate response.
The scandal surfaced when the General Accounting Office reported that in a 39-month period from July 1, 1988, to Oct. 3, 1991, some 20,000 bad checks were written by hundreds of present and former members of Congress. Some of the overdrafts totaled more than six figures, but no penalties were ever charged. In effect, it was like a free loan.After the shocking disclosure, the cozy House Bank closed its operations, but public outrage was immediate and loud. The Ethics Committee began an investigation amid enormous pressure from members terrified of having their names disclosed.
Many think making their names public in an election year and when dissatisfaction with Congress is deep and impatient could doom a number of re-election plans.
It's true that there are profound election implications, but that's no reason for covering up most of the problem. In fact, failure to be totally open on this issue may only make things worse.
Disclosure of only the most serious cases - and some are bad indeed - would be another signal that members of Congress are more concerned about re-election and saving each other's skins than they are about being upfront and forthright with the voters.
The attitude among many in the House seems to be: It'll make voters mad; therefore, we won't tell them. Or if we have to tell, we'll limit disclosure to the worst cases so the rest of us can remain safely anonymous.
That simply won't do.
When the Ethics Committee recommendation goes to the floor of the House next week, some members say they will push instead for full disclosure of all names - those who wrote even one bad check, as well as those who wrote hundreds. Anything less will constitute a vote of no confidence in the public - the kind of "favor" the public should return next November.