Democrats and Republicans have broken the cease-fire in the savings and loan war. With the congressional elections just two weeks away, members of Congress and their challengers are freely slinging accusations trying to link each other to the scandal.
That's something House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., had hoped to keep to a minimum. Several months ago Foley said that he believed Congress and the White House should simply deal with the crisis instead of pointing fingers across the aisle.Finger pointing is tolerated during odd-numbered years, but in even-numbered election years, the rule is to keep mum about certain subjects for the good of both parties. Party leaders on both sides of the aisle had already agreed to downplay the generous congressional pay raise during the election.
Foley's own party angered him by firing the first shot. Last month the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee filed an ethics complaint against Rep. Denny Smith, R-Ore. One of the accusations against Smith was that he tried to pull strings to exempt savings and loan directors from liability if their thrift went under. At the time, Smith was a director of a shaky thrift.
Knowledgeable sources told our associate Scott Sleek that Foley was irked when the Democrats pointed the finger at Smith. Foley had been hinting for some time that he thought any open accusation against a Republican over the S&L mess could backfire.
He was right, and it didn't take long. The Republicans shot back with a complaint to the Federal Elections Commission accusing Rep. Frank Annunzio, D-Ill., of failing to file proper information about campaign donations he received from the S&L industry. Annunzio is a senior member of the House Banking Committee.
Foley had good reason to attempt a cease-fire on the S&L issue. GOP leaders made it clear early on that they were ready to fight, and they were in the best position to win. In June, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater implied that the Republicans were ready to pinpoint vulnerable Democrats on the S&L issue if the Democrats tried to make hay out of it during the election. Fitzwater dropped a few names.
Foley criticized Fitzwater and said the administration should stop making accusations and start cleaning up the financial mess. On this issue, the Democrats would have been smart to keep their heads down. Four of the "Keating Five" are Democrats. The five - Sens. Alan Cranston, D-Calif.; Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz.; Donald Riegle, D-Mich.; John Glenn, D-Ohio; and John McCain, R-Ariz. - have been accused of pulling strings to keep federal regulators off the back of Charles Keating, the biggest S&L villain of them all. A special counsel has recommended that Glenn and McCain, the lone Republican, be dropped from the Keating investigation. That leaves the "Keating Three," all Democrats.
The party doesn't need to see any more names added to the list. A spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said that the committee took a long time to file a complaint against Smith because it was researching his financial dealings. But other sources say the specter of an all-out S&L war prompted months of indecision among the Democratic leadership over whether to make an issue out of Smith. In the end, the temptation to nail him during an election year was too great. They simply couldn't help themselves. It's a shame that it takes political opportunism for Congress to get to the bottom of the S&L scandal. But at this point, the victims - the American people - will take justice any way they can get it.