Rubber Checks on Capitol Hill

October 04, 1991

The House of Representatives is about to lose a valued perk: its own special bank in which members may write checks (rubber or otherwise) on their own accounts and cash checks (rubber or otherwise) on out-of-town banks. Two years ago, shortly after Thomas Foley became speaker, the General Accounting Office reported that the bank was routinely covering bad checks at no charge to members. Mr. Foley subsequently ordered the practice stopped. It wasn't.

Last week, the GAO issued another report. The practice of House members writing bad checks had gotten worse. Speaker Foley again ordered the practice stopped. Yesterday, he went even further: He shut down the bank as of the end of this year and told the House ethics committee to investigate lawmakers who abused its lenient practices. Yet Speaker Foley still doesn't want to release the names of the check-bouncers. He implied he might not even allow the bank to give non-check-bouncers a letter attesting to their innocence.

Some congressmen are outraged -- at outside criticism of the bank's practices. Rep. Barney Frank said, "I don't think it's any big deal at all. I think it says more about the mind set of the press." Colleagues seem to agree, including GOP leader Bob Michel and some who are ready critics of shoddy practices elsewhere in government.

If these members really believe it is only "the press" that is disgusted with the GAO's revelation, they should check the letters to the editor and the radio call-in talk shows. When an unspecified number of members of a 435-member body bounce 8,331 checks in one year, when 134 of those members bounce 581 checks of at least $1,000 each in six months, and when 192 bad checks for $198,000 written on out-of-town banks are cashed, and nothing is done about any of it -- no overdraft charge, no suspension of privileges, no nothing -- that is a very big deal.

It is unethical for a congressman to have behaved this way. Or worse. According to Emma Coleman Jordan of the Georgetown University Law Center, "The idea that you cash a check on an account when you know there are not funds to cover it and there is no arrangement to receive credit from the bank on which the check is written, that's an illegal activity."

Illegal, unethical, sloppy, just plain arrogant -- whatever it is, it is wrong, and the public has a right to know who wrote all those free rubber checks. Denied proof to the contrary, the public has to assume that all members were somehow involved in or condoned this practice.

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