Early in the fall of 1990, a member of Congress beckoned me to a corner of the House chamber and placed a slip of paper in my right hand. I was only a few weeks into my year-long tenure as a congressional page, and I had no idea what he wanted me to do. A consultation with one of the Democratic floor managers clued me in — the paper was a bank slip. I was supposed to go downstairs to the sergeant at arms’ suite and return with money.
Fifteen minutes later I strode back onto the floor and triumphantly extended a wad of cash to the congressman who’d sent me on my mission. “Jesus, kid,” he snapped, as he grabbed me by the lapel. “The cameras!” I had forgotten about C-SPAN, and apparently the bank teller had forgotten to give me an envelope.
So went my amusing if tenuous connection to the House Bank — an institution that would soon fall into lasting infamy. In late 1991, congressional Republicans revealed that over 320 former and current members of Congress had routinely overdrawn their accounts at no cost or penalty. The resulting scandal saw 77 congressmen — most, but not all, Democrats — either lose their seats or decline to run for reelection. It was a canary in the coal mine. Two years later, Republicans swept off-year elections and regained control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1955.
Amid the growing sexual harassment revelations now threatening to consume Congress, reform-minded candidates and incumbents should take note of the House Bank scandal. In 1991 and 1992, a rising generation of Republican officeholders harnessed the power of new media to make what was, at best, a minor infraction into a powerful symbol of congressional corruption. They manufactured a wave of popular outrage and then rode it to power. The aim was not so much political reform as electoral advantage.
Today, Congress faces the prospect of far more serious criminality. Yet curiously, few members from either party have stepped up to do the right — or even the expedient — thing. They seek neither reform nor political advantage. Why? Because they worry about fanning the flames of a scandal that has far greater potential to engulf both parties.
First, a bit of history.
At the time of the bank scandal, members of Congress routinely deposited their salary in the House Bank and were permitted to overdraw their accounts, as long as their delinquent balance was not in excess of their next paycheck. In reality, the “House Bank” was not so much a bank as an unregulated and poorly managed check-cashing outfit operated by the sergeant at arms. In many cases, members didn’t even realize they were overdrawn, given the bank’s lax and often inaccurate accounting practices.
At worst, congressmen benefited from the kind of overdraft protection for which conventional bank customers either pay a fee or maintain a certain average balance. But none of this stopped Republican insurgents from making political hay of the moment.
Spurred by Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, by then a well-known and controversial firebrand, the so-called Gang of Seven, including such young House backbenchers as Rick Santorum and John Boehner, seized every opportunity to shame the Democratic majority before C-SPAN’s cameras. Iowa Rep. Jim Nussle famously delivered a floor speech with a paper bag over his head — in theory, to signify his mortification — and demanded that habitual overdrafters be named and shamed.
Speaker Tom Foley, a Democrat who first won election to Congress in 1964 on Lyndon Johnson’s coattails, badly underestimated the popular backlash to perceived congressional privilege and hypocrisy. While the GOP sweep two years later owed to multiple factors — chiefly, rejection of Bill Clinton’s tax and health-care agendas and a long-coming realignment of Southern congressional seats — the bank scandal helped Republicans articulate a more sweeping populist critique of elite political institutions.
Scandals were nothing new in congressional politics. Watergate should have served as a cautionary tale for wayward politicians. It was the first fully televised congressional scandal and conditioned the public to expect the worst from its representatives. But it didn’t have that effect. Members of Congress continued to misbehave, oblivious to changing currents in politics.
Months after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in shame, scandal brought down Wilbur Mills, the all-powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who stumbled onto the stage at a Boston strip club and joined his girlfriend Annabelle Battistella — a.k.a. Fanne Foxe — for several of her dance numbers. He might have survived had D.C., police not earlier stopped Mills and Foxe for failing to turn on their car lights. Mills was clearly intoxicated and, for good measure, Foxe fled the car and jumped into the Tidal Basin.
Only slightly more disgraceful was Mills’s colleague, Wayne Hays, the chairman of the House Administration Committee, who kept his longtime mistress on the government payroll as a secretary, even though she admitted to authorities, “I can’t type. I can’t file. I can’t even answer the phone.”
Between 1978 and 1980 the FBI conducted a sting operation in which agents posed as Arab businessmen and offered cash bribes to 31 elected officials. Ultimately, one senator and five House members took the bait. In a bizarre footnote to the story, Rita Jenrette, the ex-wife of Rep. John Jenrette, who went to prison for his role in Abscam after agents raided his home and found $25,000 in cash stuffed inside one of his shoes, gave a tell-all interview on Phil Donahue’s nationally syndicated talk show and posed nude for Playboy. Jenrette informed readers that she and the congressman once had sex on the Capitol steps during an all-night House session. (At least some good came of the episode. A group of GOP congressional staffers soon formed a comic song-and-dance troupe. They called themselves the Capitol Steps.)
By comparison, the House Bank scandal was a misdemeanor offense. But times had changed. The advent of cable television brought Congress into increasing numbers of American homes, thanks to C-SPAN and CNN, which became a primary news driver after its landmark coverage of the Gulf War in early 1991.
The rise of the 24/7 cable cycle necessitated news even when no such news existed. The conservative insurgents in the House, tired of being marginalized even within their own party, cunningly sensed an opportunity. They offered content to fill the programming void — using the extra time to bludgeon Democrats for transgressions both real and imagined.
To be sure, if the banking scandal wasn’t criminal, it was obnoxious. Even as many Americans were paying small fortunes in overdraft and service fees, individual members of Congress were able to kite checks dozens and, in some cases, hundreds of times, free of charge.
But what’s happening today makes all that look quaint. Over the past 20 years, Congress has paid at least $17 million in settlements, many of them presumably stemming from charges of sexual harassment. Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the dean of the House (he was first elected along with Tom Foley on Lyndon Johnson’s coattails), stands accused of multiple counts of physical harassment of female staff members. And it is widely assumed that more — perhaps many more — members will soon experience their Harvey Weinstein moment.
But where is the outrage? The leadership of both parties has responded with unusual quietude. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who drummed Anthony Weiner out of Congress for sexting with consenting adult partners, has all but given Conyers a reprieve, referring his case to the Ethics Committee and allowing him to step down as ranking Democrat of the Judiciary Committee. Speaker Paul D. Ryan has called for mandatory harassment training on the part of members and staff, but not much more. A handful of members like Kathleen Rice and Barbara Comstock are demanding full transparency and accountability, but they are few and far between.
Unlike during the House Bank scandal, both parties today fear they are broadly exposed. And with good reason. Sexual harassment and assault transcend partisan boundaries. In our current moment of populist upheaval, all members of the political establishment — Democrats and Republicans alike — are vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy.
No one wants this to become a thing. But it is. And it needs to be.
Reformers in both parties have an opportunity to clean house. If they can harness the power of new technology — of social media, podcasts and even cable TV — much in the way that Republican insurgents did in 1991 and 1992, they can sweep aside the sexual predators and those who give them safe harbor.
Unlike the banking scandal, this one is real. The stakes are sky high — how Congress addresses the scandal will shape whether the institution is a hospitable environment for women moving forward and set an example for all workplaces. Today’s insurgents, should they arise, have an opportunity to create a lasting legacy for good.