Powerful Democrats No Strangers to Scandal

Scandals have ended more than a few careers in Washington. But a look at some of the top Democrats in the new Congress shows a little bad publicity won't necessarily doom a fellow.

Some of the men now expected to fill the most powerful seats in the incoming Congress were hit by the worst scandal among congressional Democrats in recent history, but have emerged with more power than ever.

In 1992, many Americans were outraged by reports that members of the Democrat-controlled House and Senate had bounced checks at the private House bank. The bank graciously charged the politicians no fees for their overdrafts, even as some members ran debts of many tens of thousands of dollars. (That's a perk that many Americans might enjoy about now.)

Republicans, working to foment a populist revolt that would carry them to power, seized on the scandal, which tarred more Democrats than Republicans. A few lawmakers faced criminal charges stemming from the flap, but dozens more lost or resigned their seats in the tide-turning 1994 elections, which gave Republicans control of Capitol Hill for the next two decades.

Worst Offenders

Today, with the Democrats again in firm control of Congress, some of the worst offenders from "Rubbergate" are flourishing.

New York Rep. Edolphus Towns, who is poised to take over the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, bounced 408 checks between July 1988 and October 1991, according to a congressional investigation into Rubbergate. His new committee is in charge of watchdogging executive branch ethics and management.

The panel's previous chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman of California, will take over the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He bounced 434 checks during the period of Rubbergate, investigators found at the time. (Neither he nor any other member mentioned in this story responded to inquiries with comment.)

Rep. John Conyers of Michigan is expected to hold on to his gavel as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Investigators found that Conyers had written 273 bad checks during the 39 months covered by their probe.

More Incoming Congressmen From Rubbergate Flap

Other chairmen for the incoming Congress were lesser offenders in the scandal. Rep. George Miller, Calif., expected to keep the chair of the Education and Labor Committee, bounced 99 checks; Rep. Charles Rangel, N.Y., chair of the powerful Ways and Means panel, bounced 64. That tied Rep. David Obey, Wisc., now chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee.

Many believe that Rubbergate was more hype than substance, which might explain why it was survivable for the lawmakers.

"That was very significantly overblown," said congressional scholar Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

The House bank sometimes took over a week to process a deposit, so it was possible some members would not have bounced so many checks if the bank didn't operate "like it was in the 19th century," Ornstein said. Though he conceded that "there were some people who were completely careless."

There were no allegations anyone was outright scamming the bank – writing bad checks they had no intention of covering.

But the flap built on a growing belief that politicians were getting perks and treatment that ordinary Americans couldn't, something the minority Republicans saw and exploited, even if it harmed a handful of its own members. Recalled Ornstein, "at that point, [America was] in the midst of a populist uprising against elitists, especially those we elected, who lived like kings while the rest of us suffered."

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