Federal regulators, by rescuing or closing a post-Depression record of 217 insolvent savings institutions in 1988, have written a check for $38 billion with money they do not yet actually have.

Now it's up to Congress and the administration of President-elect Bush to make sure the check doesn't come back marked "insufficient funds."Not since the Depression year of 1938, when 277 S&Ls went under, has a greater number failed.

Twenty-two of the 1988 rescues, requiring nearly $6 billion in government aid, came in a frenzied, 48-hour spending spree that ended late Saturday, just hours before the new year began.

Officials of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, which regulates the S&L industry, were racing the clock because tax breaks for purchasers of failed institutions were cut in half, effective Sunday.

The rescues have stirred some grumbling about "taxpayer bailouts." But, the bulk of the bailout money, at least so far, has come from the industry, not the taxpayer.

However, analysts and some lawmakers say regulators have run up such a huge bill that turning to the taxpayer is inevitable. The General Accounting Office has estimated it may cost $112 billion to fix the industry's problems.

"We still don't know the magnitude of the S&L crisis," Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole of Kansas said Sunday.

"We're not even certain what the regulators have been doing the past week, running up a tab of some $40 billion. Somebody's going to have to pay. . . . We can't hide it by putting it off budget or smoke and mirrors," Dole said on ABC-TV's "This Week With David Brinkley."

Bank board officials have been spending, or in most cases promising to spend, money from the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp., which guarantees S&L deposits up to $100,000.

The FSLIC gets most of its income from an assessment on still-operating S&Ls. It also earns money when it sells real estate and other property from failed institutions.