For months, Bush administration officials have been saying they intend to restore discipline to the nation's banking system by making shareholders, bondholders and large depositors more responsible for the safety of their own investments rather than having government bail them out.

But yesterday, bank regulators were forced to ignore their own prescriptions whenthey granted various waivers allowing Maryland National and American Security banks to lend $271 million to their parent company, MNC Financial Inc., to keep it from going broke.

The decision contradicts recommendations that Treasury officials have been making about how to cut the cost of bank failures and limit the scope of deposit insurance. That effort has also been endorsed by the leaders of the congressional banking committees as well as the Federal Reserve Board, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the very agencies that made the decision to make an exception yesterday in the case of MNC.

Such are the dilemmas that now face the administration as it tries to simultaneously patch up the banking system and change its course. In this case, as in so many others, given a choice between what they say ought to be done when big banks get in trouble and what had to be done to shore up confidence in the banking system, the regulators opted to bend their rules and save the banks from failure.

MNC has used a loan from its banks to pay creditors who otherwise could have forced the holding company into bankruptcy. If those loans are repaid -- as regulators and bank officials assure that they will be -- then the story will end happily for all parties. If MNC cannot repay the loan, then the cost is likely to be borne by the government's dwindling deposit insurance fund, or even by taxpayers.

But not allowing the loan would also have had its costs. When a bank holding company goes bankrupt, it is usually just a matter of time before its banks fail, forcing the bank insurance fund, the FDIC, to step in to protect depositors.

The MNC decision is the latest example of inconsistent regulatory actions that have set off a clamor in Congress to reform the deposit insurance system.

In the last few weeks, regulators have decided to extend government insurance to depositors with accounts above the $100,000 insurance limit at the now-failed Bank of New England in Boston. But yesterday, the FDIC reaffirmed its decision not to protect depositors with more than $100,000 at Freedom National Bank -- a much smaller black-owned bank in New York's Harlem section -- saying there was no legal basis to do so.

"We want the public to know that the FDIC can only administer the laws, not make the laws," said FDIC Chairman L. William Seidman. "The {FDIC} board also agreed that the application of existing law sometimes results in inequitable treatment of uninsured depositors in small failed banks compared to those in large failed banks."

The Freedom National case has already set off a firestorm in Congress and yesterday it appeared that the MNC matter might add to the controversy. Congressional banking leaders were preoccupied with events in the Persian Gulf, but staff members were dismayed and private banking experts highly dubious about the decision.

"It's yet another example of the inconsistencies that occur when federal policy is driven by crisis," said Karen Shaw, president of the Institute for Strategy Development, a Washington firm that tracks banking issues.

Shaw and Robert Feinberg, an industry consultant, said they believe regulators are contradicting their own policies because they don't dare let another big bank fail so soon after the collapse of Bank of New England only 10 days ago.

"It shows they don't have a policy," said Feinberg. "They make it up as they go along."