Small ‘S’ Scandal

Posted March 16, 2004 at 5:29pm

Senators, and especially the Republican leadership, ought to quiver just a little when they read that the General Accounting Office is reporting that Senators ran up $189,545 in late payments at Senate restaurants last year and $302,116 the year before. Remember the House Bank Scandal?

Many people around today probably don’t, but it was a gigantic embarrassment to all the Members involved, some of whom lost their seats because they were getting what amounted to unsecured, no-interest loans from the now-defunct bank and got accused by opponents of check-kiting. And, the bank scandal — juicy fodder for the budding talk-radio trade — was a contributing factor to the Democratic Party’s loss of control of the House in 1994.

For sure, the Senate restaurant situation isn’t at the level where we’d call it a capital “S” scandal. What emerged in the early 1990s is that House Members were routinely getting covered for overdrafts from the House Bank. After an investigation demanded by minority Republicans, the House ethics committee disclosed the names of 252 Members and 51 former Members who’d overdrawn their accounts. Many did so hundreds of times for total amounts in the tens of thousands of dollars.

GAO did not report how many Senators are running up late tabs at the restaurants, who they are and how much money is involved in late-paying by each. But in fiscal 2003, 34 percent of the tabs — totaling $64,897 — were more than 90 days overdue and an additional 14 percent were more than 60 days late. In fiscal 2002, 33 percent — worth $98,530 — were more than 90 days late and 10 percent were more than 60 days late.

In the previous two fiscal years, late-tabism totaled $153,378 in 2001 and $113,489 in 2000. It’s hard to know why the habit of late-paying seems to go up and down, but the trend toward later- and later-paying is definite. In 2000, only 17 percent of the tabs went over 90 days. Last year, it was double that. The restaurant system clearly is not interested in encouraging prompt payment because, it has said on prior occasions, penalties accrue for late payments and the system is running in the red — to the tune of $678,000 in 2003 and $1.2 million in 2002.

The penalties — we don’t know what they amount to — certainly would make the Senate restaurant scandal different from the House Bank Scandal. In the earlier case, Members were charged no interest on their loans. Still, it’s bad form for U.S. Senators to be tardy in paying their bills. We’d recommend a simple solution: disclosure of the names of late-payers and the amount of their tardy tabs. We expect that the whiff of scandal would go away fast.