Congress comes down
from the hill
to bank with the rest of us
running out to the bank" isn't what it used to be for our elected
representatives in Washington. Times have changed.
Before the Angry White Males of 1994 and the
Soccer Moms of 1996, another breed of constituent terrorized Washington
briefly in 1992: Regular Folks Who Pay NSF Charges When We Bounce
a Check at the Bank.
We were mad as hornets and looking for blood
because of something you might remember -- the so-called House Bank
Scandal in the spring of 1992.
Some members of the U.S. House of Representatives
were found to have written dozens or hundreds of checks for insufficient
funds, without having to pay overdraft charges or suffer direct
hits on their credit histories.
But today our elected representatives are --
at least when it comes to banking -- just like the rest of us!
Their personal little corner of the banking
world has been torn down and in its place stand two federal credit
And they can't push in line when they go there.
Congress perceived the '92 fiasco as less an ethical lapse than
a bipartisan political emergency (members of both parties wrote
bad checks). House leaders quickly named names, then waited for
the press pack to get bored with the story and find a presidential
candidate to gnaw on.
Sure enough, the House scandal receded as the
press latched onto juicier subjects in that presidential election
year: Gennifer Flowers' claim of an affair with Bill Clinton, Ross
Perot's charge that rogue Republicans tried to disrupt his daughter's
wedding, George Bush's astonishment at seeing a supermarket bar-code
But Congress learned a lesson: get out of the
unregulated, unaudited banking business.
Nowadays members of Congress have to get banking
services from regulated institutions. Among them are the House and
Senate credit unions, whose members include not only elected members
of Congress and their families, but lobbyists, Congressional staffers,
Capitol Police, Supreme Court justices, C-SPAN cameramen, employees
of a veterinary
clinic in McLean, Va., and assorted others.
Newly elected members of Congress who move to
Washington expecting special privileges from their credit union
would be disappointed. They don't get to cut ahead in line, and
they don't get breaks on fees and interest rates, which are unremarkable
when compared with other credit unions.
"Everybody's treated just like any other member,"
says Bob Hess, president of the Wright
Patman Congressional Federal Credit Union.
The Wright Patman credit union (named after
a Texas congressman who championed the Federal Credit Union Act
in 1934) is for members of the House and the aforementioned staffers,
police, camera operators and veterinary assistants. The U.S. Senate Federal
Credit Union serves members and staffers of that august body,
as well as employees of the Supreme Court and the General Accounting
Office, workers at a daycare center called Tiny Findings, and others.
are created equal
The two credit unions are proudly egalitarian.
There are no exclusively printed checks just
for House and Senate members, no special rules. Members of Congress
have to wait just as long as everyone else for deposits to be credited
to their accounts and they pay the same fees, charges and interest
"I doubt that they would ask for any special
privileges. It's never been asked of me," says Jerry L. Roley, president
and CEO of the Senate credit union. "As a credit union, everybody's
supposed to be treated equally."
Says Hess: "It's in their best interest and
in our best interest that they're treated just like everyone else
in the credit union."
Translation: A big political stink would ensue
if politicians got special privileges, and federal regulators might
not look too kindly on the practice, either.
As for those NSF charges: A bounced check carries
a $20 fee. But the credit unions encourage their members to apply
for overdraft protection that transfers money from a savings account
or taps into a line of credit.
In other words, the House and Senate credit
unions operate like any other credit union. Our elected representatives
don't get huge interest rates on deposits or pay minuscule fees.
Just like us, they earn about average interest and pay about average
fees when they bank these days at the House
credit union, which boasts 43,000 account holders or the 27,000-strong
Managers of both credit unions exercise discretion.
Hess says he doesn't even know how many members of the House have
accounts at the credit union, and he wouldn't dream of identifying
any by name. Likewise with Roley, who doesn't know how many senators
belong to his credit union but believes that a majority do.
1789 treehouse club
The Senate credit union was born in the 1930s and the House credit
union was founded in the 1950s. They haven't existed nearly as long
as the Office of the House Sergeant at Arms, established in 1789.
For a long time, that office operated what was
commonly referred to as the House Bank, which wasn't really a bank.
It was more like a treehouse boys' club that allows members to raid
the ol' cigar box where dues are kept so long as they intend to
put the money back someday.
The House Bank was really a collection of accounts
minded by the chamber's Sergeant at Arms. Members' paychecks were
deposited into these accounts. Although the Sergeant at Arms had
no bank charter, members could write checks on their accounts.
In the 1992 scandal, at least two dozen House
members took advantage by routinely writing overdrafts in large
amounts. Checks should have been bouncing like balls at the French
Open, but the Office of the Sergeant at Arms covered overdrafts
for free, with no penalty.
When the public caught wind of the practice,
House leaders scrambled to control the damage. Jack Russ, the sergeant
at arms, resigned and later spent a stretch in prison for wire fraud
and filing false financial reports. A former House member, Mary
Rose Oakar, was indicted on a number of counts, including one of
writing a $16,000 hot check on her House Bank account. She pleaded
guilty to a misdemeanor count of funneling that money through fake
Ironically, she deposited the check in her account
at the Wright Patman Congressional Federal Credit Union. The credit
union, which did nothing wrong, cooperated with investigators.
-- Posted: Feb. 22, 2000