Caught In The Act

In the wake of the congressional check-bouncing scandal, members rushed forward to confess. But with voter outrage running high, many may be banished from their kingdom on the Hill.

It was as if chapters of a new self-help group--call it Bouncers Anonymous--suddenly sprang up across the political map last week. With the awful dimensions of Capitol Hill's check scandal emerging leak by leak, detail by gory detail, members of Congress indulged in an orgy of self-confession. The California Republican who last fall declared that "nobody has ever had a Duncan Hunter check returned for insufficient funds" found himself admitting to 407 overdrafts totaling $129,225. "We regret and apologize," said Rep. Gerry Sikorski, a Minnesota Democrat, acknowledging 671 bum checks over a 39-month period investigated by the General Accounting Office (GAO). "All we can do is go around and tell it to people and be as open as we can." Of course, there were plenty who didn't rush to 'fess up, like the rep who signed 743 rubber checks worth $594,646. But they didn't remain anonymous for long. In a state-by-state survey of House members (page 30), a NEWSWEEK team found more than 140 self-avowed wrongdoers who had overdrawn at the House bank. And at the weekend, the Associated Press published a list that had been leaked to them of the names of 21 of the 24 worst offenders, one of whom had bounced 996 cheeks; the three omitted happened to be Republicans.

Perhaps the men and women who did come clean believed that winning points for honesty could make up for a shocking lack of probity. The facts were due to come out anyway: last week the House voted to reveal the names of the 24 leading malefactors by next week; some 10 days later, a list of the remaining 331 legislators who overdrew even once will appear. Judging by the disgusted timber of editorial pages, the lit-up talk-radio lines, the irate calls inundating congressional offices, the mea culpa strategy may not work for all members. " Sure they're all apologetic," says Jim Wolford, a 50-year-old software writer from Houston. "Confession is good for the soul, but it doesn't correct the crime and it doesn't erase the sin." That requires penance, which may come at the ballot box in November. At a moment of deep voter unhappiness, Rubbergate seems likely to bring anti-incumbent sentiment to fever pitch. In the NEWSWEEK Poll, 60 percent of voters said they were "not at all likely" to return a major offender to office.

For many, the latest scandal in the House brought home how completely out of touch Congress really is. According to NEWSWEEK's Poll, 75 percent of Americans believe legislators don't understand their concerns. Public anger has been aboil since 1988, when the House attempted to grant itself a 51 percent pay raise without holding a vote. Now, it turns out, some members have apparently been giving themselves interest-free loans. Any ordinary American who bounced two or three sizable checks would risk felony charges. But members of the House have long occupied a surreally feudal kingdom with perks, privileges and protections unknown beyond the Hill (chart, page 26).

The House bank, which shut its doors three months ago in the wake of the growing scandal, epitomized the above-the-law attitude of the nation's lawmakers. Since 1838, congressmen have used the "bank" as a paycheck depository and check-cashing service. It paid no interest and charged none on overdrafts. If a member didn't mind signing the bum check, the bank didn't mind cashing it. Technically, the congressmen didn't bounce checks.--the bank almost never bothered to return them for insufficient funds. In fact, it was so badly run that many congressmen plausibly claim that they had no idea they were in arrears. As a result, a number of innocents inevitably will be tarred with the same brush as those "kiters" who deliberately manipulated their accounts to get interest-free loans.

This is one flap that won't die down soon. If half the rumors circulating last week about dirty dealings prove true, Rubbergate could lead to criminal investigations, indictments and tax charges. Indeed, the United States Attorney's office is already looking into a broad range of possible illegal activities, from check kiting to fraud. One possible focus of the investigation is Jack Russ, the man who ran the bank and served as House sergeant at arms (page 29) until his sudden resignation last week.

Politicians on both ends of the spectrum got ready to capitalize on the disaster. George Bush, who is running on a Congress-bashing platform, cut short his Super Tuesday swing South to come home and gloat. Jerry Brown, the ultimate outsider, gets a neat boost: public outrage could keep his campaign alive. But it's the House incumbents who are shaking at the knees, no doubt calling upon handlers, shrinks and lawyers to help them out of this jam. Though some Republicans will be swept away with the detritus, the majority party stands to pay the heaviest price in November. "The Republicans saw this as a chance to call in mortar rounds on all of us," says New York Democratic Rep. Thomas Downey. "Sure, they'd lose a few of their guys, but they'd kill a lot more of us."

House members have been scrambling for cover since last September, when a GAO report revealed that 355 current and former members had written more than 8,000 bad checks in a single year. During the 39-month period under investigation, 200 reps had overdrawn their accounts by more than a month's salary--the bank's stated limit--at least once. But these were the amateurs. During that same window of opportunity (as in, "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em"), the 66 most egregious offenders wrote about 20,000 rubber checks with a face value of $10,846,856. " I don't know how some of these folks slept at night, given the kind of books that they kept," said New York Democratic Rep. Matthew F. McHugh, head of the House ethics committee assigned to wade through the muck.

At first it looked as if House leaders were going to stage a "modified limited hangout," the tactic of damage control through selective confession invented by Richard Nixon during Watergate. House Speaker Thomas Foley, McHugh and Minority Leader Bob Michel brokered a deal to disclose only 24 names, 19 of them attached to current officeholders. They arrived at that number by means of a two-pronged standard: the member had to have bounced checks worth more than his monthly salary (an average of $7,000 last year) and done so in eight of the 39 months under review.

But a number of Republicans, including Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, balked at the strategy, crying foul play. Public outrage over an apparent cover-up spurred them on, leading to last week's House vote. Though the GOP spearheaded the move, the Dems also concluded they would suffer from an appearance of deceit. " We received more than 220 calls in a 24-hour period," said freshman Democrat Charles Luken of Ohio. "This is no ho-hummer."

Both Republicans and Democrats blamed the fiasco on the House leadership, which seemed unable to grasp the seriousness of the issue. Foley came to power on the rebound from the ethics scandal involving former speaker Jim Wright. Foley is known as the great conciliator, but critics say he carried his peacemaking too far with a too-little, too-late response to the brewing imbroglio. The speaker defends his handling of the matter. "The complaint is that I didn't immediately rush out and disavow the ethics committee," Foley told NEWSWEEK. "If I have to bear the burden of making a public-relations mistake, I can bear it. But it's not ultimately a policy failure."

Incumbents are in a tizzy over their PR problems. The strategy of choice appears to be confess, confess, confess. The chest-beaters have ranged from small-potatoes bouncers like Pennsylvania Republican Curt Weldon, who overdrew once to the tune of $2.49, to Connecticut Republican Chris Shays, who discovered he had written 18 rubber checks totaling $46,949.55 because of a misunderstanding about depositing procedures at the House bank. A number of reps have gone the sympathy route, like Georgia Dem Charles Hatcher, who blamed his 819 rubber checks on costs connected with a heart attack and a divorce. California Congressman Robert Dornan explained that his bounced check was meant to cover the cost of a backyard shrine to the Virgin Mary.

The dumbest-bounce award goes to Texas Democrat Charlie Wilson, who sent a $6,500 rubber check to the IRS. Up for reelection, Wilson called his overdrafts "no big deal." "It's not like molesting young girls or young boys," he said. "It's not a show stopper." The case of Larry Hopkins suggests otherwise. Running for the Kentucky Statehouse last year, Hopkins discovered he had 32 inadvertent overdrafts adding up to $4,035. He claims House Dems leaked the information-- and his campaign never recovered. Many analysts believe Rubbergate won't disappear by the fall. "We talk about Teflon," says New York public-opinion analyst Lee Miringoff. "This could be the Velcro effect for Congress."

The issue is especially likely to stick if criminal charges follow. The size and frequency of the cheeks have led to speculation that some members were parking the money in 30-day CDs. " What we have here is evidence that suggests industrial-strength investing," says Daniel Polsby, a law professor at Northwestern. "Something stinky's going down." Rep. Fred Grandy of Iowa, a member of the ethics subcommittee, said that some of the worst offenders overdrew heavily before an election and paid the money back the second week of November--a pattern suggesting they may have been illegally lending funds to their re-election campaigns.

Washington's army of lawyers should be rubbing their hands in glee. D.C. statutes say that anyone who deposits a check for more than $100 " with intent to defraud" could be guilty of kiting--a felony that carries a maximum three-year sentence or $3,000 fine. The IRS is studying whether some congressmen owe taxes on their interest-free loans. " If I were an ambitious federal prosecutor," says Polsby, " I'd go to court, try for a search warrant and then back the moving vans up to the Capitol." If that happens, Congress would almost certainly resist furnishing documents, citing special privilege. Because of the tradition of separation of powers, says University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Miller, lawyers for the House would try to argue that the U.S. Attorney in fact has no jurisdiction over its records.

The irony of the latest scandal is that Congress may never have been cleaner. Stung by outrage over past excesses, the House has relinquished some of its baronial practices. Last year the House restaurant stopped granting unlimited credit. The price of haircuts has gone up. The House Post Office, which has seen several employees indicted on embezzlement charges, seems to be headed the same way as the now defunct bank. And in 1988 legislators actually made themselves liable to the same civil-rights laws they impose on the rest of the country.

Will that be enough for voters fed up with business as usual? Even before Rubbergate broke, forecasters were predicting substantial congressional turnover come November. Not only does redistricting ensure many new faces, but this is the last year for members elected before 1980 to retire with their campaign war chests. Nevertheless, the country has been buffeted by a "throw the bums out" tempest before--as recently as 1990, when 96 percent of incumbents were returned and the Dems picked up nine seats. " Most voters hate Congress but still have a love affair with good old Joe, their own guy," says Michael Waldman, director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch. Once again, voters may decide they prefer somebody they don't admire to somebody they don't know.

Some House Democrats are frustrated with the speaker's conciliatory leadership. "He can see three sides of every coin,' says one aid.

The minority whip's acrid floor speech accusing Democrats of a cover-up put pressure on members to vote for full disclosure.

"I won't apologize for it. These overdrafts . . . occurred in the regular course of business.'

"I feel terrible. I'm very embarrassed and have only myself to blame.'

"I haven't been a high-liver, I don't think. But I've had living expenses and family expenses.'

"We've handed our detractors . . . wonderful political theater.'

"This is no one's fault but mine. I have summoned the posse here today to turn myself in.'

"I have an inherent faith that if you tell people the truth they will put it in proper perspective'

Do you approve or disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job?

CURRENT 7/91 Disapprove 78% 53%

Do members of congress understand the problems and concerns of people like you?

75% NO 24% YES

Is it a big deal that members of Congress wrote bad checks on their House accounts?

88% YES 11% NO

How likely are you to vote for the current member from your district if his or her name is on the list of worst offenders?

18% Somewhat/very likely 60% Not at all likely

For this NEWSWEEK Poll, The Gallup Organization interviewed 513 adults by phone on March 13. The margin of error is plus or minus 5 percentage points. "Don't know" and other responses not shown. The NEWSWEEK Poll 1992 by NEWSWEEK, Inc.

Beyond E-Z credit, members of Congress enjoy a range of perks--from free gas to cut-rate coifs--that constituents only dream about. Among them:

Gratis on the Hill. Special license tags permit ticket-free parking in D.C. and at local airports.

Reps signed chits for meals at House restaurants until October, when unpaid bills totaled $300,000.

Members can use five rustic lodges, in spots like Shenandoah, Va., and the Grand Tetons, at low cost.

Free health spas plus free medical care on the Hill equals healthier, wealthier members.

Six salons keep congressional heads in trim. Although prices recently doubled, cuts cost just $10.

Members can spruce up their offices with potted plants from the U.S. Botanic Garden.