With challengers eagerly vowing to exploit the congressional bad-check scandal in this election year, lawmakers went home grimly Friday to test voter reactions in their districts and to offer explanations.
Many were forced to admit that they wrote thousands of dollars of personal overdrafts on the now defunct House bank.
And for members facing potentially serious opposition in November, the overdraft issue could be the difference between political survival and defeat.
In the words of Rep. Fred Grandy (R-Iowa), "Your talk-show hosts have a topic. Your opponent has an issue. And your constituents have a reason to support term limitations."
Grandy, the former "Love Boat" television series actor who serves on the Ethics Committee, predicted the political fallout would be "awesome" and unlike "anything you've seen since Watergate."
As "individual cases are tried in individual districts, this story will build and fester" and taint the reputations of even non-check bouncers with "the stain of incumbency by the time of the June primary in California," Grandy said.
But not everyone agreed.
Congressional analysts differed over the impact the scandal will have on the general election in November, when all 435 House seats are up for grabs. "It will be significant, but we'll need to see the names of the worst offenders, and where the tough races are, before predicting how much impact it will have," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "Frequently, events occurring months ahead of an election have less of an impact than they otherwise would," he added.
Some House members went home expressing remorse, saying they were ready to throw themselves on the mercy of the public after the House voted early Friday to disclose the names of all 355 current or former members who wrote bad checks at the private Capitol Hill bank.
"We should have known better," said Rep. Gerry Sikorski (D-Minn.). "We should not have been so casual and careless. . . . We apologize."
Others were still hanging tough--either refusing to say whether they are among those to be publicly identified by the end of this month, or admitting to overdrafts but remaining unapologetic.
"It's personal financial matters today," said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), arguing that disclosure of members' private banking records was an invasion of privacy. "Will it be medical and dental records tomorrow . . . and a urine specimen next month?"
There were some highly creative explanations presented--from blaming the bad checks on a spouse to justifying repeated overdrafts by noting gifts given to charities in the past.
By informal count, more than 80 congressmen have so far confessed writing at least one bad check during the 39-month period examined during a five-month long investigation by the House Ethics Committee. The current list includes roughly twice as many Democrats as Republicans and at least 20 members of the California congressional delegation.
Underscoring the extent of the problem, the list also includes senior members of the House leadership on both sides of the political aisle: House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), Majority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.), Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Republican leadership members Vin Weber of Minnesota, Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma and Duncan Hunter of Coronado.
Even the acting chairman of the House Ethics Committee, Rep. Matthew F. McHugh (D-N.Y.), confessed surprise when he received the still-secret list of overdraft writers from the General Accounting Office on Friday and found his own name on it. "I was surprised and disappointed," McHugh said, adding that he had never been notified of the bad check and suspected it was either an "honest mistake" on his part or a clerical error by the bank.
None of the top leaders is expected to be among the 24 current and former members whose names are to be disclosed March 23 when the House releases the Ethics Committee's list of "worst abusers" of the House bank policy of allowing members to overdraw their checking accounts without penalty.
The names of the other 331 members, who all wrote at least one bad check in the period under review, are to be released five days later--a delay granted to give members time to review their accounts, dispute the findings or simply to prepare explanations for their constituents.
Back in their districts, congressmen or their spokesmen admitted that their district offices were being deluged with calls from angry constituents demanding to know details of the check scandal and their representative's role in it. But most said that they believed voters would forgive those with relatively minor overdrafts and that public attention would return to the "big issues" of health care, education and the economy before the November elections.
"I am going to tell the voters: All of you who have never bounced a check, vote for my opponent--the rest vote for me," said Rep. Charles Wilson (D-Tex.), who confessed to writing between 75 to 85 bad checks.
Wilson's Republican opponent, Donna Peterson, said she is confident voters will not take it so lightly.
"Voters are more informed today than ever before and they are not going to forgive this and they will not forget. It is having a big impact on the voters. . . . This is an old-fashioned, Bible-Belt area. The power of the incumbency is not going to save Charles Wilson this time," she said.
Another Republican challenger, Dolly Madison McKenna, served notice she intended to make the most of the issue with voters in her bid to unseat Rep. Mike Andrews (D-Houston).
" . . . It's the kind of thing they can personally identify with. A $400-billion deficit is so astronomical that people can't focus on it, but everybody understands writing a check when they don't have money in the bank," she said.
Rep. Guy Vander Jagt (R-Mich.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, urged GOP challengers to exploit the scandal in their races.
"All Republican challenger candidates should demand their Democrat incumbent opponent release the list of their bounced checks. . . . It is time to throw out the Democrat leadership of the House and give the Republican Party a chance to clean things up," he said.
With public disclosure now less than two weeks away, more and more lawmakers came forward to acknowledge that they took advantage of a congressional perk that, while it violated no law and cost the taxpayers no money, allowed them to regularly draw what were in effect cost-free loans on their paychecks.
Some were defiant. Some blamed the system. Some blamed their wives.
"My wife and I deeply regret our actions with regard to our personal checking account," said Sikorski, who admitted to writing 671 bad checks. "The handling of our personal finances was far from what it should have been."
It was a "sloppy system" and the House was "stupid" to entrust management of an in-house bank to non-professionals, said Art Kingdom, a spokesman for Rep. Wayne Owens (D-Utah). "If anybody ought to be mad, it ought to be the other members of Congress whose money was used to cover the checks of those who were overdrawing their accounts," he added.
"My wife had a checkbook," said Rep. Lawrence J. (Larry) Smith (D-Fla.), who has admitted to writing an unspecified number of overdrafts. "She didn't know what was in the account. If she wrote a check, she assumed there would be money to cover. So did I," Smith told the Miami Herald.
Times staff writers William J. Eaton in Washington, Lianne Hart in Houston, Anna M. Virtue in Miami, Edith Stanley in Atlanta, Doug Conner in Seattle, Tracy Shryer in Chicago and Ann Rovin in Denver contributed to this story.
The House bank was run by the Office of the Sergeant-at-Arms, which since the early 1800s has been the disbursing office for members' pay. Much like commercial banks, the House bank--located on the first floor of the Capitol--took deposits, issued checkbooks and monthly statements and cashed checks, both its own and those written on other banks. To conduct those transactions, it maintained an average daily balance of more than $1 million. All 440 members of the House of Representatives and delegates had accounts there and most had their paychecks deposited directly. Only members were permitted to use the services. Unlike a commercial bank, the House bank honored checks written against accounts even if they contained insufficient funds. This free "overdraft protection," dating as far back as 1830, was viewed as an advance on members' next paychecks. It was assumed the amount would be covered by the next deposit. The guideline was only sporadically enforced. None of the bank's rules were in writing and members generally were not notified of overdrafts unless they were large and went unpaid for long periods.
Some Who Have Stepped Forward
Here is a partial list of House members nationwide who acknowledge having written bad checks at the House bank. There has been no official notification of amounts. Here is the information they have disclosed. Charles Hatcher (D-Ga.): 780 bad checks but he gave no amount. Explanation: "Mostly I was paying family bills with this thing. That's what I used the account for, family bills and not anything else." Gerry Sikorski (D-Minn.): 671 bad checks for $119,966.97. Explanation: He said he and his wife used the House bank account for personal expenses, saying: "We should have known better. We should not have been so casual and careless with our personal account. We are sorry and we apologize." Vin Weber (R-Minn.): 125 bad checks for $47,987. Explanation: "While understanding the public outrage, I can only say that I operated within the rules of the bank as I understood them, and I never used it in an abusive way." Clyde C. Holloway (R-La.): A dozen bad checks. Explanation: Poor record-keeping by the House bank. "I don't think there's anything necessarily wrong when someone had six or eight checks that passed in the mail."
The California Delegation
At least 20 of California's 45 House members have acknowledged writing overdrafts on House accounts. Here is what they've disclosed. Glenn M. Anderson (D-San Pedro): Aide said one overdraft. Barbara Boxer (D-Greenbrae): 87 overdrafts, each between $25 and $2,000. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Colton): Five overdrafts. Randy (Duke) Cunningham (R-San Diego): One check, $15,000. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton): 27 overdrafts, $6,553 Ronald V. Dellums (D-Berkeley): No details provided. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove): One check, under $1,000. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento): One check, believes it was a bank error. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley): Two checks, $3,105 Duncan Hunter (R-Coronado): 407 checks, more than $129,000 Richard H. Lehman (D-Sanger): One check, amount not known. Bill Lowery (R-San Diego): No details provided. Matthew G. Martinez (D-Monterey Park): Four checks, believes it was a bank error. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento): 21 checks, $11,196 George Miller (D-Martinez): "I assume that I probably did bounce some checks." Norman Y. Mineta (D-San Jose): Three checks, less than $175 each. Ron Packard (R-Oceanside): Four checks, $1,963 Dana Rohrabacher (R-Long Beach): At least eight. Pete Stark (D-Oakland): 17. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield): No details provided. Source: Times survey of House members.