Congress loose with cash? So what else is new?

ROGER SIMON r

October 04, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

We now learn that members of Congress have not been paying their bills.

They have bounced checks with the House bank, and they have charged meals and have not paid for them at the House and Senate dining rooms.

I am truly shocked.

I figured the people who have run up a $282 billion annual deficit and a $3.6 trillion national debt would always pay their bills on time.

After all, these are the same people who oversee a Pentagon that spent $3 billion on the Navy's A-12 attack plane, canceled it in January because the thing could not fly, and then told the contractors, who had been paid 1.35 billion tax dollars for work they never performed, that they could put off repaying the government indefinitely.

These are the same people who spent $40 million in Park Service funds to create what has been described as a third-rate railroad museum called "Steamtown, U.S.A." in Scranton, Pa., at a time when park rangers, who keep people from getting lost and eaten by bears, are being laid off in Yosemite.

These are the same people who approved $500,000 to restore and turn into a museum the boyhood home of Lawrence Welk near Bismarck, N.D. They then disapproved the money, possibly because somebody pointed out to them that Welk is not even dead yet.

And these are the same people who last year approved $320,000 to restore the Canton, Ohio, home of the in-laws of William McKinley, our 25th president.

So you can imagine my surprise when I picked up a newspaper and found out these people were loose with cash.

Members of the House, the General Accounting Office discovered, bounced 4,325 checks at the House bank in the first half of last year, 581 of them for $1,000 or more.

During the period of the study, House members were paid a salary of $96,600 per year. They now make $125,000 per year.

When you or I bounce a check, three things happen to us:

1. The bank charges us a penalty fee that usually ranges from $25 to $35.

2. The bank returns the check to the merchant, who then charges us another penalty fee.

3. The merchant calls us up and yells at us until we cry.

In fact, it is even worse than that. A few weeks ago, my wife and I dined out with good friends at the Crab Cafe near Annapolis. When it came time to divide up the check, I paid the entire thing with a credit card and my friend (who just happens to be a famous political reporter for the Washington Post, and whose career I should end by naming him, but I won't because I'm too nice a guy) wrote me a check for his share.

I deposited his check in my checking account. And it came back from my bank stamped "Insufficient Funds." He was very embarrassed when I told him about it, and he instantly paid me in cash. But you know what my bank did to me? It charged me a $3 penalty fee.

That's right. I didn't write the bad check, I received the bad check, but I still got charged a penalty.

When a congressman writes a bad check, only one thing happens:

1. Nothing.

There are no penalty fees of any kind. And the congressman, according to one press account, "is seldom notified if a check bounces."

Why should the bank bother? Its operation is paid for with 50 million tax dollars per year. So it's not like it uses real money.

After the recent publicity, the House bank promised to crack down. And one thing it wants to do in order to crack down is to obtain overdraft protection for the members of the House.

Overdraft protection is when the bank, instead of bouncing your check, automatically advances you a loan to cover the bad check. And then the bank charges you a very high interest rate to pay off the overdraft.

This, I think, will not help the members of Congress, however. Because they will run into the same trouble my friend Floyd ran into.

As soon as banks started overdraft checking a few years ago, Floyd signed up. He had bounced three checks in six months, so this was a service he really needed.

He was immediately rejected.

"Why?" he asked the banker.

"Because you bounced three checks in the last six months," the banker told him. "You are a bad risk."

"But if people who bounce checks can't get this service, who the hell is this service for?" Floyd asked.

And the banker explained to him that overdraft checking is for people who don't bounce checks. In other words, if you need it, you probably can't get it.

So the members of Congress should not get their hopes up. And, in fact, late yesterday the House voted to shut down its bank.

But the situation is not hopeless. You know who we really need on Capitol Hill watching all these checking accounts? We need the guy who approves my expense accounts at work. Because I want the members of Congress to get the calls I get:

"You know that cab ride you took in April 1987, in San Diego for $6.12? Well, we investigated and found out you were only 16 blocks from a bus line and could have made the same trip for $1.25! And that $84 hotel bill from June 1989? It reveals that you watched a movie in your room. Company policy forbids repayment for movies in the room, especially for something called 'Patty Does Paducah.' "

That is exactly what Congress needs: A real bean counter. Somebody who makes you too scared to do the wrong thing.

But we also learn that lawmakers owe more than $300,000 for meals in their Capitol dining rooms.

They get to sign for their meals and then walk away from the tables. They are sent bills. But they don't pay their bills.

So am I going to criticize them for not paying their meal tabs like I just criticized them for bouncing their checks?

Naw. Because I have tried the food in both the Senate and the House dining rooms.

And if I could have, I wouldn't have paid either.

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