Skip to content
Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Bad Checks of House Members

It takes up very little office space but it is generating lots of newspaper space around the country. The soggy saga of the House of Representatives special bank for members is spilling its mischievous entrails gradually and embarrassingly about another abuse of Washington privilege.

Each day more disclosures seep out about which member and which Democratic or Republican bigwig was writing rubber checks or kiting checks faithfully carried by the House bank run by taxpayer-paid staff on taxpayer‑ operated property.

Ironically, the members of the House were caught by their own investigative arm, the General Accounting Office (GAO), which was set up after World War I to monitor and audit the Executive branch agencies and departments.

The dry prose characteristic of the GAO, reported that House members wrote 8,331 bad checks from July 1989 to June 1990. Twenty four Congressmen wrote six bad checks in six consecutive months for over $1000 each.

Even the pompous, Newt Gingrich (R-GA) had three “problem” checks. Another member said he found it “a useful service” to write checks that were covered by the House bank without having to pay the $20 or so that commercial banks in the DC area charge for bounced checks. So wouldn’t all the people out there in the U.S.A. like the same deal?

It isn’t that the GAO was rushing matters with its disclosures. In August 1988 and February 1990, it warned the House official in charge of the bank about the widespread incidence of checks being cashed with insufficient funds. In July 1991, the official wrote GAO back promising reforms.

All this was going on while the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House were ramming through a $35,000 salary raise plus a large pension increase for the members without permitting any public hearings nor any amendments on this very controversial nest-feathering.

Did the number or amount of bounced checks diminish during this period of raising their own pay to $125,000 per year? Did the unpaid bills for eating at the House dining room decrease with such higher pay? Were the legislators more diligent and honest in representing the people over greedy interest groups, given their higher pay? Of course not. Greed tends toward infinity — the more they give themselves, the more they want and the more arrogant they become.

House Speaker, Tom Foley (D-WA) has another view. He called the press coverage “hysterical”, said the practice was not “a matter of ethical violations” but nevertheless he would end the practice. The next day, the House of Representatives more than ended the practice of rubber checking; it voted overwhelmingly to close the whole Bank down.

The Congressional Pay Grab of 1989 and 1991 was largely ignored by the major newspapers, such as the New York Times and the Washington post, and the television networks. Only the talk show radio hosts thought it an important enough matter of hypocritical leadership presiding over a massively broke government to air the heist. Foley did not complain about this press and big television blackout. Instead he got smug and entrenched from the expressions of public outrage.

Now Speaker Tom Foley is facing a referendum vote next month in Washington state to limit his and other legislators’ terms. Foley is busy raising money to defeat the measure, arguing that voters should not throw out experience and judgment. That’s not meant to be a joke, folks.