Selected Skirmishes: Bad-Face Banking

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The country is in a tizzy over the congressional check-kiting scandal, but I'm having a hard time even finding my pulse. I haven't been sleepier over a Washington "appearance of impropriety" since Nancy Reagan mysteriously procured fresh tableware. (Although I was positively woosie with Kitty Kelley's investigative report that a Woman in Red had been bodysurfing with Frankie at the White House.)

At bottom, the House "bank" is probably the least offensive congressional waste product in recent decades. If some flush members decided to cover tapped members' bounces—without a nickel of tribute from the deadbeats—the worst I can accuse them of is being as stupid with their own cash balances as they are with ours.

Right-wing flamers grasp desperately for a substantive taxpayer issue. The stretch they make is that if the bank had lost money, there was an even chance the U.S. Treasury would have had to cover it.

Well, I am glad that the issue of unfunded federal liabilities has finally gained popular attention. Although in our generation the bank has not lost any money, the theoretical possibility is disturbing, and I applaud those Americans who are Outraged! by the mere thought of it. Now, if only a calorie of this righteous indignation could be diverted toward the congressional scoundrels who were up to their eyeballs in a very untheoretical $500-billion S&L taxpayer wipeout.…

The virtual reality of politics contains one fewer dimension than the number required for the exercise of fiscal sanity. The big screen of Washington is a Madonna-esque voguing stage upon which familiar caricatures of the Public Servant strike great symbolic poses. These flash across the public's consciousness monitor, conveying all the information the democratic system will accept. A photo op is worth a thousand words in the vogue dance of politics—indeed, more: What genius voter reads 1,000 words? Washington is run by those who can best manipulate the fleeting images of Concern, and the federal elections are the Olympics of public posturing.

The congressman—so richly the beneficiary of the pose, the gesture, the vogue—now considers himself the victim. "What did I do?" he asks. These are damn near the only honest words he will utter this year, because he honestly does not know why the public is so upset over his little banking deal. How cheap and tawdry of congressional critics (and the filthy Republicans; why, they bounced too!) to vilify the innocent goings-on here. No taxpayer was harmed. Taking these things out of context is absurd. These bounced checks weren't even returned NSF. Please, people, don't get so excited: It only looks bad.

This is where hardened agnostics begin to reconsider. Those who have made their living chiseling the facts, shaving the truth, sculpting reality, are framed by a hollow melodrama that only looks bad. How bloody perfect. How poetically just. How metaphysically juicy to see this arrogant body of spin controllers themselves spun right into the ground. All the better that they didn't even do anything really wrong. Those who gallivant the good life on bogus promises of being servants of the people—all edited beautifully and brought to you in living color courtesy of the PACs—certainly ought to understand the lack of content contained in so much of what we Americans see and believe in contemporary politics.

So far removed is Washington's proscenium arch from the halls of actual policy making that the presidential campaign's "economic debate" has, as usual, taken on a life entirely divorced from any returns excepting those recorded November 3, 1992. (Which is why the real debate is over Capitol gains.) Both parties must "turn the economy around" by concocting a legislative package designed to stimulate the private sector. (And you thought Jesse Helms had killed federal funding of indecency.) Let me let you in on a little secret: Nothing either party has up its sleeve will make so much as a 0.1-percent difference in the U.S. GNP this year. Whatever recovery there will be has already begun—fueled by Dr. Greenspan's 3.5-percent interest-rate elixir. And Washington can't help.

It could hurt, however. A Big Dumb move could send Wall Street south and spark a chain reaction. (Remember the tumble the Dow took last year after Sen. Al D'Amato proposed a credit-card interest-rate cap?) So, alertly, both parties stick to Small Dumb moves: innocuous enough not to destroy what is already in place, but sufficiently soundbiteable to allow its author to project that his potent cure-all will rescue the middle class from the ravages of (pick one): a) the GOP's mass joblessness or b) the Democrats' hyper taxes. Getting your marker down before the recovery hits allows you to claim the jackpot when the economy spurts, but the betting strategies are sophisticated: No big-time political gambler will fail to place a second stack of chips on some subplan that the other party will surely block. This way they're covered on all bets: boom, bust, or "sideways readjustment."

This is the heads-I-win-tails-you-lose world in which the Capitol gang is accustomed to scrimmaging. These political prophylactic devices do successfully shield our decision makers from ever coming into contact with a real policy decision, but they cost real Americans billions and billions. It just doesn't seem fair that something so remarkably inexpensive and unsinister as the House bank should create such a stir. Thank you, God.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California. Davis.

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