Rubbergate, as the pundits are calling the congressional check-bouncing scandal, is misunderstood. It appears easy for the public to understand because most of us have checking accounts.
Actually, it isn't that simple. This is not a bank anything like the rest of us use. It's really a disbursing agency that disburses House members' payroll checks and allows them to write checks on the money. If a member had an overdraft, it was covered by another member's money - quietly. So quietly that many members didn't even know they had an overdraft.Even though some abused it, no taxpayer money was involved.
For more than 150 years, House members have written checks on money that was not yet in their accounts. Since there was no charge for writing them, they were really writing themselves short-term, interest-free loans.
Problems are not new. In 1832, Speaker Andrew Stephenson announced that some members of the House "had unintentionally overdrawn their accounts" the year before. Then John Oswald Dunn, the sergeant at arms, started dipping into the funds. By 1838 the system of disbursement was pronounced "dangerous."
In 1889, Craven Silcott, the bank's cashier, absconded with $71,000 of House funds, and beginning in 1925, Sergeant at Arms Kenneth Romney skimmed thousands of dollars for 20 years.
So this is a bank with a historically shaky accounting system. On the other hand, while most of us don't bounce as many checks as House members, we do "live on the float" with plastic - credit cards that allow us 30 days or more to pay. This means that the loose attitudes that have governed the House bank increasingly govern our whole society.
But there is something else interesting about this case. There are a number of "perks" for House members - over and above salary. The House bank falls under that category.
Bob Benedict, U. of U. politicial science professor and congressional specialist, gave me an interesting rundown on the House's three categories of perks. The first covers those with a clear connection to the job, such as the franking privilege (three newsletters a year), free trips to their districts (32 a year), designated parking places at airports and fact-finding trips, better known as junkets. Members of Congress also have free access to radio and TV, costing the taxpayers $3,000 per House member each year.
The second category is what Benedict calls an "ethical gray area" for privileges that come in lieu of pay - such as subsidized meals and subsidized car washes.
House members also get free medical care, as well as access to ambulances, tennis courts, swimming pools and a gym. They can also rent vacation homes near national parks.
Since House members are now paid a very respectable salary of $125,000 per year, there is a less convincing argument for such perks than there used to be.
The third category is one Benedict thinks fits the House bank - in which members break or bend laws or regulations. "Bouncing checks may not be as bad if you know the money is coming in, but the gray area is when you don't tell people you're bouncing the checks."
The bottom line is that if we're upset about the House bank, maybe we should be upset about all congressional perks. And maybe we should take out our anger on the institution of the House, rather than its individual members. (Except those who bounced 900 checks.)
President Bush decided not to use the House bank as a campaign issue when he discovered that several of his own Cabinet members bounced checks while members of Congress - approximately the same number as Wayne Owens.
There's one other thing - we may yet learn that Bush and Quayle bounced checks while they were in Congress.