By Tom Still
WASHINGTON – If the future of the nation’s financial system rested on the opinions of people calling into congressional offices here, the credit markets would be thrown under the bus. Fortunately, the biggest rescue of American capitalism since the Depression won’t be decided by a telephone poll.
It will be decided in a reassuring if somewhat unexpected way: By members of Congress and key White House advisers who are actually working together to resolve a crisis of confidence. With the presidential election less than seven weeks away, this relentlessly political town has taken a brief but necessary holiday from partisan bickering. The question on the streets is not whether the $700-billion rescue plan will be passed, but how soon, and with what safeguards.
A visitor to Capitol Hill this week can’t miss the signs of urgency: Packed hearing rooms, impromptu news conferences in the hallways and phones ringing non-stop at the reception desks of congressional offices. It’s less a sense of panic, however, than of purpose. Republicans and Democrats alike appear resolved to fix what needs to be fixed before the economy slides into an abyss, and to reserve finger-pointing for another day.
To be sure, many members of Congress are skeptical about the details of the bailout plan. They want oversight of the Treasury’s actions once it is given broad new powers to buy up troubled mortgage-backed securities and other assets. They want more limits on compensation for executives of companies that take part in the rescue. They need greater assurances that taxpayers will get back whatever profits the Treasury may someday receive from the sale of assets, if the plan works as well as advertised. And they want to make sure the plan doesn’t forget those Americans in danger of losing their homes.
Those are largely bipartisan concerns, however, not competing sets of Republican and Democrat demands. There is a realization that both parties share some responsibility for the financial system’s train wreck, and that both parties – as well as the legislative and executive branches – must help put the engine back on track.
That will mean ignoring the voices of those who urge doing nothing as a way to punish Wall Street for its greed and mismanagement. The markets have already meted out punishment to many of the worst offenders, whose investment houses have collapsed or been acquired for a fraction of their peak values. Some 26 firms are under investigation by the FBI, which means other shoes may drop. Those who stand to be punished now by inaction aren’t on Wall Street but live or do business on Main Street, where the collapse of the credit markets could mean a deep and prolonged recession. That could translate to millions of layoffs, bank failures, lost retirement savings and more foreclosures.
“Our entire economy is in danger,” President Bush said during a Wednesday night speech to the nation. “Without immediate action by Congress, America could slip into a financial panic.”
Despite their back-and-forth maneuvering, it appears both presidential candidates agree with Bush that the stakes are high. Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama have both called for an independent oversight board, relief for homeowners threatened with foreclosure and pay limits for executives whose troubled companies take part in the rescue program.
They also recognize why the federal government must step in: It’s the only institution patient enough to buy the mortgage-backed securities at their current prices and to hold them long enough for prices to return to normal. If the forced restart of the financial markets works, taxpayers may not lose money over the long run. It may also serve them for the short term, regardless of how they feel about the suits on Wall Street.
As one Wisconsin member of Congress noted when asked how constituent calls were running, “it’s about 100 percent against (the bailout). But we aren’t elected to simply reflect that people are angry. We’re elected to solve problems. Sometimes, that means taking a bad choice over no choice, which in this case would be disastrous.”
With crisis at the doorstep, Washington appears poised to act. Perhaps the lessons of September won’t be forgotten after the November election.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.