As we watched the corruption comedy unfold in the Duncan Hunter scandal, let’s not forget that Hunter inherited his seat from his father, Duncan Hunter, Sr., who was first elected in 1980 at 32 years of age. The senior Hunter never got indicted for anything. But he gave it a good shot. Hunter was one of several Southern California Republican congressmen caught up in the Duke Cunningham scandal and the several military contracting sub-scandals it brought in its wake.
But one of Hunter’s brushes goes back more than a decade earlier. Between 1990 and 1992 there was something called the House Bank scandal. In many ways it was a bogus scandal, one of several that Newt Gingrich and his team of young right wing Republican members of Congress were adept at spinning up. For decades the House had run its own bank for members, one with loose and extremely antiquated management. Even in the late 80s and early 90s it was still using a pencil ledger to keep track of its accounts.
The key was that it had overdraft protection for members. The issue was complicated by the fact that it was so loosely run that deposits sometimes wouldn’t be posted for weeks after they were deposited. So some members of the House who over-drafted their accounts could very reasonably blame the bank itself for not getting around to posting the deposits they’d made. The bank also didn’t routinely issues balance statements. In any case, the idea that the House needed to have its own bank for members was silly and antiquated. The key was that there were no charges for over-drafted checks and a relatively small number of Representatives routinely over-drafted checks, sometimes leaving their account overdrawn for months and even years.
The Gingrich crew took this and whipped it up into a major scandal as part of their eventually successful effort to discredit the long-sitting Democratic majority and take control of the House. In truth though, it was not really a partisan scandal. Since there were more Democrats and more long-serving Democrats, more Democratic names came up as top offenders. But not all.
Duncan Hunter was one of those Republicans who were also exposed. He’d written over 400 “bounced” checks – for well over $100,000. (They really weren’t bounced. That was the whole point.) As I said, the whole thing was largely (though not entirely) a bum rap. But to Gingrich and his crew folks like Hunter, though Republicans, were simply collateral damage in his scorched earth war against Democratic control and institutions of government generally. Hunter went through an awkward and painful to watch round of exchanges and feeble explanations. The choicest part was that he was the victim of his own colleagues rabble-rousing. And they simply didn’t care.
Hunter, who like his son represented a strongly Republican district, managed to hold on. He was reelected every year until he retired in 2008 and passed his seat on to his son.