How much money would you bet on "tails" in the flip of a two-headed coin?

Probably not much. And yet that's exactly the lopsided game taxpayers are still being made to play with S&L owners.The relationship works this way. When times were good, S&L owners got the profits. Now that times are bad, taxpayers are picking up the owners' $200 billion tab to depositors.

Profits are privatized; losses are socialized. For S&L owners, it's the perfect game of "heads I win, tails you lose."

The game is played that way to protect depositors. The federal government insures deposits to keep innocent men and women from suddenly losing their life savings.

The problem is that owners of these failed S&Ls are allowed to go on winning and having the taxpayer foot the bill. It works this way:

When the government bails out depositors at a failed S&L, it tries to recover as much money as possible from officers, directors and others responsible for those losses. That money goes to lessening the cost of the bailout.

But, as it stands now, S&L owners also can demand a share of that money. In some cases, because they can rush to file suit without a preliminary investigation, S&L owners walk off with whatever money is left before the government even puts in a claim.

This is a disgrace. Whatever money can be wrung from the crooks who treated the nation's S&L as their personal piggybank should go first to the taxpayers who have been made to pay the cost. That's why I introduced legislation to give the government's claims on behalf of the taxpayers top priority in the courts.

Although it was adopted by the Senate, my legislation has been blocked repeatedly in the House of Representatives, where opponents argue that it is "unfair" to S&L owners and will stymie fraud investigations. Neither is true.

Some S&L owners probably will recover less money if my proposal is adopted. That's unfortunate but hardly unfair. Owners are always the last to be paid off in a bankruptcy proceeding. Are we now to be so overwhelmed with sympathy for S&L owners that we will suspend this basic rule of business and let them run off with money that rightly belongs to the taxpayers?

Ultimately, S&L owners made a conscious decision to invest their money in a business venture; taxpayers never had that choice. I think it's about time we stopped worrying about keeping S&L owners happy and behaved fairly to the taxpayers.

It is equally ridiculous to argue that doing so will somehow stymie S&L fraud investigations. Opponents of my bill, which applies only to claims involving failed S&Ls, argue that it will rob private parties of the financial incentive to bring fraud charges.

But we don't need private parties to help us discover fraud in the failed S&Ls covered by the federal bailout. Under the law, the government must investigate fraud in all such cases, and has the resources to do so. It's the investigative equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel.

The only real question is: do we want the money we recover to go to the taxpayers, or to S&L owners and their lawyers?