With challengers eagerly vowing to exploit the congressional bad-check scandal in this election year, lawmakers went home grimly Friday to test voter reactions in their districts and to offer explanations.
Many were forced to admit they wrote thousands of dollars of personal overdrafts on the now defunct House bank.
Some expressed remorse, saying they were ready to throw themselves on the mercy of the public after the House voted early Friday to disclose the names of all 355 current or former members who wrote bad checks at the private Capitol Hill bank.
Others were still hanging tough--either refusing to say whether they are among those to be publicly identified by the end of this month, or admitting to overdrafts but remaining unapologetic.
There were some highly creative explanations presented--from blaming the bad checks on a spouse to justifying repeated overdrafts by noting gifts given to charities in the past. But a few members, like Rep. Gerry Sikorski (D-Minn.), said they had no excuse to offer at all. "We should have known better," he said. "We should not have been so casual and careless . . . We apologize."
House members bore the uneasy knowledge that, as of today, in the words of Rep. Fred Grandy (R-Iowa), "Your talk-show hosts have a topic. Your opponent has an issue. And your constituents have a reason to support term limitations."
Grandy, the former "Love Boat" television series actor who serves on the Ethics Committee, predicted that the political fallout would be "awesome" and unlike "anything you've seen since Watergate."
As "individual cases are tried in individual districts, this story will build and fester" and taint the reputations of even non-check-bouncers with "the stain of incumbency by the time of the June primary in California," Grandy said.
By informal count, more than 80 congressmen have so far confessed to writing at least one bad check during the 39-month period examined during a five-month-long investigation by the House Ethics Committee. The current list includes roughly twice as many Democrats as Republicans and at least 20 members of the California congressional delegation.
Underscoring the extent of the problem, the list also includes senior members of the House leadership on both sides of the political aisle: House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), Majority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.), Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Republican leadership members Vin Weber of Minnesota, Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma and Duncan Hunter of Coronado.
Even the acting chairman of the House Ethics Committee, Rep. Matthew F. McHugh (D-N.Y.), confessed surprise when he received the still-secret list of overdraft writers from the General Accounting Office Friday and found his own name on it. "I was surprised and disappointed," McHugh said, adding that had never been notified of the bad check and suspected it was either an "honest mistake" on his part or a clerical error by the bank.
None of the top leaders is expected to be among the 24 current and former members whose names are to be disclosed March 23 when the House releases the Ethics Committee's list of "worst abusers" of the House bank policy of allowing members to overdraw their checking accounts without penalty.
The names of the other 311 members, who all wrote at least one bad check in the period under review, are to be released five days later--a delay granted to give members time to review their accounts, dispute the findings or simply to prepare explanations for their constituents.
Congressional analysts differed over the impact the scandal will have on the general election in November, when all 435 House seats are up for grabs. "It will be significant, but we'll need to see the names of the worst offenders, and where the tough races are, before predicting how much impact it will have," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "Frequently, events occurring months ahead of an election have less of an impact than they otherwise would," he added.
Back in their districts, congressmen or their spokesmen admitted that their district offices were being deluged with calls from angry constituents demanding to know details of the check scandal and their representative's role in it. But most said that they believed voters would forgive those with relatively minor overdrafts and that public attention would return to the "big issues" of health care, education and the economy before the November elections.
"I am going to tell the voters: All of you who have never bounced a check, vote for my opponent--the rest vote for me," said Rep. Charles Wilson (D-Tex.), who confessed to writing between 75 to 85 bad checks.
Wilson's Republican opponent, Donna Peterson, said she is confident voters will not take it so lightly.
"Voters are more informed today than ever before and they are not going to forgive this and they will not forget. It is having a big impact on the voters . . . This is an old fashioned, Bible-Belt area. The power of the incumbency is not going to save Charles Wilson this time," she said.
Another Republican challenger, Dolly Madison McKenna, served notice she intended to make the most of the issue with voters in her bid to unseat Rep. Michael A. Andrews (D-Tex.).
" . . . It's the kind of thing they can personally identify with. A $400-billion deficit is so astronomical that people can't focus on it, but everybody understands writing a check when they don't have money in the bank," she said.
Rep. Guy Vander Jagt (R-Mich.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, urged GOP challengers to exploit the scandal in their races.
"All Republican challenger candidates should demand their Democrat incumbent opponent release the list of their bounced checks. . . . It is time to throw out the Democrat leadership of the House and give the Republican Party a chance to clean things up," he said.
With public disclosure now less than two weeks away, more and more lawmakers came forward to acknowledge that they took advantage of a congressional perk that, while it violated no law and cost the taxpayers no money, allowed them to regularly draw what were in effect cost-free loans on their paychecks.
"My wife and I deeply regret our actions with regard to our personal checking account," said Sikorski, who admitted to writing 671 bad checks. "The handling of our personal finances was far from what it should have been."
Some were defiant.
"It's personal financial matters today," said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), arguing that disclosure of members' private banking records was an invasion of privacy. "Will it be medical and dental records tomorrow . . . and a urine specimen next month?"
Some blamed the system, while others blamed their wives.
It was a "sloppy system" and the House was "stupid" to entrust management of an in-house bank to non-professionals, said Art Kingdom, a spokesman for Rep. Wayne Owens (D-Utah). "If anybody ought to be mad, it ought to be the other members of Congress whose money was used to cover the checks of those who were overdrawing their accounts."
"My wife had a checkbook," said Rep. Laurence J. (Larry) Smith (D-Fla.), who has admitted to writing an unspecified number of overdrafts. "She didn't know what was in the account. If she wrote a check, she assumed there would be money to cover. So did I," Smith told the Miami Herald.
A senior aide to one House Democrat said another member had secretly confessed that he had written a $10,000 bad check but hoped he would be forgiven by constituents because the money was used to purchase a statue of the Virgin Mary.
"A lot of people are blaming it on their wives, but this is the first reported appearance of the Virgin Mary in the check-kiting scandal so far," the aide added.
Times staff writers William J. Eaton in Washington, Lianne Hart in Houston, Anna M. Virtue in Miami, Edith Stanley in Atlanta, Doug Conner in Seattle, Tracy Shryer in Chicago and Ann Rovin in Denver contributed to this story.