Last night, Rick Santorum accused Newt Gingrich of ignoring the House banking scandal to further his political ambitions. “You knew about it for — for ten or 15 years,” Santorum charged:
Because you told me you knew about it. And you did nothing, because you didn’t have the courage to stand up to your own leadership, the Democratic speaker of the House, take to the floor of the [House], demand the releasing of the checks that were being kited by members of Congress, risk your political career, risk your promotion within the ranks and do what was right for America.
But members of the Gang of Seven, the group of Republican congressmen who publicized the scandal, say Gingrich supported their efforts.
In 1992, news broke that members of Congress had abused their privileges with the House bank, an institution that dated from the Civil War. Unlike a regular bank, the House bank functioned as a credit union. A member could deposit his paychecks in the institution and then write checks on his account. And, crucially, any check a member wrote would be covered with whatever funds the bank possessed — even if the member’s individual account lacked sufficient funds. As a result, hundreds of members kited checks.
Reform-minded Republicans used the story to make the case that the Democratic majority was corrupt. Seven Republicans who emphasized the issue in particular — John Boehner, John Doolittle, Scott Klug, Jim Nussle, Frank Riggs, Rick Santorum, and Charles Taylor — became known as the Gang of Seven.
“Newt provided tacit support,” Riggs tells NRO. “There was an article in USA Today [about the scandal]. . . . Newt sent a copy of that article to, I believe, each of us and wrote in the margin, ‘Change takes courage and effort. Keep up the good work.’ He was very much there in the background as Rick suggested, but closely monitoring events.”
“I actually remember Newt being fairly supportive,” adds Klug. “He thought it was a way to attack the Democrats.”
“It is true that Newt didn’t blow the whistle,” says Frank Gregorsky, a former aide to Gingrich. “But Newt was not a bystander, and he took one of the bolder positions.”
In an interview with John McLaughlin in March 1992, Gingrich called on the House Ethics Committee, which had released the names of only the 22 worst offenders, to release the names of all members involved.
“I’m going to do everything I can to insist that we name and expose the details of the 55 who were the serious abusers and that we at least name the 44 [others involved] who had extraordinary bad judgment,” he said.
He himself was among them, making 22 overdrafts, including one $9,463 check to the IRS in 1990. Then the Republican whip, Gingrich almost lost his seat in 1992, when a primary challenger mounted an aggressive campaign based on charges of ethical misconduct. Gingrich won the Republican nomination in his district by only 980 votes.