Early last February, Representative John Lewis took the House floor and demanded, “How can our constituents expect Congress to address the nation’s economic ills when tens of thousands may have been embezzled and stolen right here in the Capitol? How can they expect Congress to deal with a drug epidemic if cocaine is in fact being sold right here in our own workplace?” Always publicity-hungry. Congress has lately been making the papers in most unflattering ways. On the heels of the resignation of a House Speaker and Majority Whip due to financial corruption, the spectacle of sex offenses involving teenage pages, and the discovery of a brothel run out of a congressman’s apartment, the 102nd Congress brought us the Keating Five controversy, the circus cum nomination proceedings for the most recent Supreme Court Justice, the ignominy of congressmen stiffing their own restaurant, and the House bank and post office scandals. The scope of congressional malfeasance no longer allows for the possibility that these are isolated incidents.
These recurring scandals have not only damaged people’s faith in our government, but fouled the government itself. Arguing unsuccessfully against a further increase in spending for congressional staff in 1991, Senator Jesse Helms warned, “If we cannot be faithful in little things, we are not going to be faithful in big things. More importantly than that, we will further diminish any remaining faith the American people have in the ability of this institution, the U.S. Senate, the Congress of the United States, to undertake the kind of spending cuts necessary to put America’s financial house in order.” The disgraces of the 102nd Congress have pointed so clearly to a need for reform that even Congress itself has acknowledged it. In fact, during the recent election season congressmen themselves were among the loudest crusaders to have climbed aboard the reform bandwagon.
Unfortunately, the 102nd Congress concluded business last October without implementing most of the corrections announced in the wake of the abuses. The Keating Five scandal seems almost a faint memory. Few recall that it was just over a year ago, as the bank scandal was breaking, that Senator Cranston, the man most firmly rebuked by the Senate’s investigation, stood unrepentantly in front of his colleagues, charging that “Here but for the grace of Cod stand you.” The Senate’s inability to deal with its own ethics problems during the first session of the 102nd Congress was manifested by the House during the second session. On July 31, 1991, Senator David Boren stated, “Congress is in trouble as an institution. No one doubts it. In poll after poll, Americans describe Congress as inefficient, wasteful, and compromised by the way it finances campaigns.” Ironically, Senator Boren delivered these words months before the scandals in the House bank and post office rocked Capitol Hill. Since that time, public regard for Congress has hit an all-time low, with many polls showing an approval rating lower than 20 percent.
Senator Boren had been introducing a bipartisan proposal to establish a committee on congressional reform. This proposal was finally passed after a full year of delay, long enough to put off action on the law by this Congress. The same pattern of promise and delay plagues the other reforms Congress has claimed. During an August 1992 interview with Sam Donaldson on This Week With David Brinkley, Speaker of the House Tom Foley claimed, “We’ve taken care of those problems that did exist.” When the Speaker closed the members only House bank last April, he also declared the whole matter closed. As more information becomes available, however, it appears that this quick action was merely an attempt to seal the lid on a large can of worms.
Evidence indicates that, among other things. House bank accounts may have been used to cover gambling debts and to finance reelection campaigns. More significantly, it appears that House leadership knew of the abuses at the bank well before the scandal broke and attempted to sweep them under the rug. An April 3, 1991, draft report on the House bank by the General Accounting Office mentions “a continuing pattern of cashing checks when there are insufficient funds” and that “account holders are receiving what amounts to interest-free short-term loans.” Such statements, which stand in sharp contrast to later ones by the Speaker and other House members, were stricken from the final draft of the GAO’s report, hi addition, the Speaker’s wife may have played a part in obstructing an earlier investigation of the post office’s misdeeds.
The abolition of congressional perks, trumpeted loudly last March, was quietly reconsidered in May. A few perks have been eliminated or modified, allowing members to claim broadly that action has been taken on the perk issue. But according to staff members of the House Administration Committee, “not much has happened.” Even cosmetic legislation to reform the House patronage system largely responsible for the scandals has languished. Passed in time for members to face their constituents over the last Easter recess, it has still not been acted upon. Neither of the new positions created by the bill, a “House Director of Non-Legislative and Financial Services” and a House Inspector General, has been filled. This pattern of promises now, personal benefits later, eerily parallels most congressional action on the budget in recent years.
The House, moreover, has shown less zeal for “cleaning house” than for grinding old political axes. While the House refused to set up a probe of its own post office scandal, it approved a plan for a $2.5 million investigation into the Reagan campaign of 1981. Unable to contend with the plank in its own eye, Congress wants to look for a sliver in someone else’s. The House ethics panel investigating the check-bouncing scandal found that about 350 members have bounced checks over the past three years, with some 50 bouncing at least $100,000 each. Many members then proceeded to lie about their involvement with the bank once the scandal broke.
Clearly unable to manage events under its own roof. Congress nevertheless attempts to manage the lives of ordinary Americans. Congress has increasingly used “mandates,” precise instructions to states and businesses, to accomplish its ends. In this way, it claims action on issues while avoiding the question of costs by shoving them onto others. Congress also includes minutiae in its legislation, from naming the “Joseph Ralph Sasser Boat Ramp” at river mile 752.5 in Shelby County, Tennessee, to establishing national standards for the “maximum number of cytology slides that any individual may screen in a 24-hour period” in clinical laboratories. Big Brother also has something to say about child care in over 300 bills introduced in Congress last session.
Congressional meddling in American lives is also accomplished by micromanaging executive-branch departments. This is another way Congress wields power while avoiding responsibility. Congress required 2,311 reports, at the cost of millions, from the Department of Defense in 1991, on subjects like “Beach erosion at Presque Isle, Erie, Pennsylvania” and the “Des Plains wetlands demonstration project.” Yet one memo to the Defense Department from the House Committee on Government Operations addressed the deceased John Tower as Secretary of Defense. At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, abuse and corruption spanned years despite the oversight of 111 congressional committees, annual reports to Congress detailing abuses, and 2,425 phone calls a month from congressional offices. Congress did not acknowledge the scandal until a subcommittee chairman read about it in the paper. Now it has done HUD one better by increasing funds for ad-hoc grants from $10 million at the time the scandal broke back in 1989 to $260 million for fiscal year 1993. The only difference is that now it’s legal: Congress is in control of the money.
As bungling and intrusive as congressional micromanagement can be, congressmen fiercely protect their executive-branch turf. John Dingell, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, wrote to a dozen agency heads following President Bush’s moratorium on regulation early last year, instructing them not to comply or review their rules, nor to consult with “anyone in the executive branch about this letter or the content of your reply.”
Until it can govern itself. Congress cannot be expected to govern the nation. Senator George Mitchell admonished the Bush administration in early 1992 by saving, “Those who seek to reform others should start by reforming themselves.” It is time for Congress to heed its own words.
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