Despite the huge national stories of 1991, such as the start of the Persian Gulf War and the controversy over Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court, nothing would have a bigger impact on Congress than the House Bank scandal, which led to dozens of retirements and re-election losses. The scandal essentially paved the way for the Republican takeover in 1994.
In late September, Roll Call broke the House Bank story using research from the then-General Accounting Office’s July 1989 to June 1990 audit. The audit exposed that “134 Members bounced 581 checks written for $1,000 or more, with 24 of these Members bouncing at least one such check per month in the last six months covered by the audit.”
Roll Call also reported that bouncing checks wasn’t a new thing for Members; rather, GAO reports showed that Members had started this “way of life” in 1984.
The story dominated national headlines for weeks, and there was pressure on the bank to publicly release the names of the Members who had bounced checks.
Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) was the first Member to step forward and admit that he bounced a check. Following Obey’s announcement, Roll Call conducted a telephone survey of all House Members and found that 20 admitted to bouncing checks. After the results were printed, one by one, the Members came forward on their own account, admitting their wrongdoing.
In the days and weeks following the scandal, everything that Congress did fell under the microscope. The Thursday, Oct. 3, issue featured a front page dedicated to the scandal and Members’ special privileges such as getting parking tickets fixed, dining credit cards and an ambulance for Members only.
While then-Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) tried to put an end to the scandal almost as soon as it began, the House voted 390-8 in favor of having the ethics committee investigate the scandal and simultaneously order “its private cooperative bank to be shut down by the end of the year.”
In 1992, 43 House Members seeking re-election were defeated, and another 52 retired. Two years later, 38 incumbents lost and 26 retired as Republicans took control of the House for the first time in 40 years.
Roll Call has launched a new feature, Hill Navigator, to advise congressional staffers and would-be staffers on how to manage workplace issues on Capitol Hill. Please send us your questions anything from office etiquette, to handling awkward moments, to what happens when the work life gets too personal. Submissions will be treated anonymously.