THE PORTRAIT that emerges of the House of Representatives in the first-ever professional audit of its books is of an institution dedicated to the comfort and convenience of its members.
According to the audit, taxpayers' funds were wasted and petty corruption was routinely tolerated or never discovered.It is an unfortunate comment on the House's reputation that the media greeted this scathing assessment, in a Price Waterhouse audit released July 18, with little surprise and minimal comment.
Of course, one reason for the blase response is that the audit looks backward, covering a period in late 1993 and 1994, when the Democrats ran the chamber.
Another reason is that Republicans, who doggedly made the case that the House was systematically corrupt when they were in the minority, have set about overhauling the system of perquisites and patronage that the audit details.
But the audit offers a cautionary lesson to House Republicans and their counterparts in the Senate, who have not yet undertaken many of the reforms under way in the House. The lesson concerns the tendency for the party in power to do business in a way that leads to the misuse of public funds and the lack of accountability that plagued the House.
The auditors found that one of the institution's biggest failures was its unwillingness to adopt a modern, fully computerized accounting system. Every agency in the executive branch must use an accrual system, which permits detailed tracking of expenses and revenues. In passing the 1956 law to require the executive branch to use the system, Congress exempted itself.
The House never changed its accounting system, because there was no reason to do so. In fact, there were incentives not to change: Members probably liked being able to overspend their office accounts if the need arose - a practice detailed by the audit. They liked the privilege of turning in expense vouchers at their leisure, often without documentation, because it made their lives easier.
Especially damaging was House leaders' tendency to shield members from the consequences of their complacency.
This happened during the 1992 House bank scandal, when the leadership fought to prevent the release of the names of members who had overdrawn their accounts. That mentality was not only politically shortsighted, as events proved, but reflected why the problem existed in the first place. Members had grown comfortable in a system that could not withstand public scrutiny.
None of this history may seem immediately relevant to the House GOP. Republicans stress that they are moving to clean up the House.
Human nature being what it is, however, the pressures to run the House for the comfort and convenience of the members will not go away just because the GOP is in charge.
Rep. Ron Packard, R-Calif., the chairman of the Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee, noted in June that many members are "ambivalent" about his moves to scale back services and perquisites.
There is nothing wrong with members' receiving services. They are busy and important people whose time is valuable. The problem arises when voters perceive that lawmakers are abusing the system and not being honest.
When such situations arise, House GOP leaders will face the same choice that their Democratic counterparts did - protect their members or disclose and fix the problem.
It took 40 years for the House system to reach the breaking point. But if GOP leaders choose the same route as the Democrats, they risk suffering the same rebuke at voters' hands.