WASHINGTON — THE House bank really wasn't a bank.
It was a cooperative, funded only by money deposited by members of the House of Representatives. So when congressmen wrote bad checks, they were really floating - or "kiting" - on their colleagues' money until their own deposits covered their debts.
The "bank," which was closed in the wake of an auditors' report detailing improprieties last fall, didn't behave like a bank in other ways. It paid no interest to depositors. Its accounts were not insured by any federal agency.
For the most part it didn't bounce checks. That is, it didn't send a check back to a member when there weren't sufficient funds to cover it. And when an overdraft occurred, no fine was charged and the member was rarely notified.
On top of that, the bank was badly run. Deposits were sometimes not credited in a timely manner, causing overdrafts that weren't the member's fault. And it lacked sufficient oversight to the point where the House sergeant-at- arms, who was in charge of the bank, was himself kiting checks, according to the report of the General Accounting Office (GAO).
"Clearly the management practices of the bank were a mess. It was a disaster," Democratic whip David Bonior of Michigan said on the House floor last Thursday.
Taxpayer money was not lost through the bank's unorthodox practices but, according to Congressional Quarterly, the bank's operations were government-subsidized:
* The bank's three full-time employees and other part-timers were paid with public money.
* The Treasury compensated commercial banks for time spent handling transactions involving the House bank's accounts.
* A small amount of public money was transferred into the House bank, per authorization of the House Administration Committee, to make up shortages caused by cashier error.
In all, 355 current and former House members are on the GAO list - ranging from members who wrote one bad check to those who wrote hundreds in amounts that consistently overdrew their accounts by more than their next paycheck.
Hanky-panky at the bank is nothing new. In its more than 150 years in operation, stories of embezzlement, check-kiting to finance real-estate deals and election campaigns, and coffers found short have become part of congressional lore. But the latest revelations have proven too much in this era of ever-closer scrutiny of politicians' ethics.
P.S. The Senate doesn't have a bank, a fact that members are quick to point out to constituents. And they don't plan to open one anytime soon.