Tuesday, September 30, 2008

the Bailout Congress Forgot

The shameful failure of Congress to pass the bailout hurts an awful lot of Americans, not just wealthy bankers.

Have a retirement account? Own a home? Need a business loan? Whether or not you made any mistakes at all this year, you're getting pummeled by a fractured market and a government that is failing to help.

No one needs a handout - not even failing banks - but we do need restoration of confidence. It needs to be prompt, clear, and sufficient.

Remember the Mexican bailout under the Clinton administration? Maybe not, since it turned out so well. When Mexico was facing financial ruin in a deepening spiral, the Treasury stepped up to offer $40 billion in credit. The amount was considered huge, but that was intentional: it was meant to reassure the markets that more than enough was being done.

It worked. Creditors relaxed, and Mexico was able to get more loans from other sources. It needed little of the money offered by the Treasury and paid back all that it took.

But Congress voted against it, days after promising support. Dissenting Republicans said we couldn't spend our money helping an irresponsible nation, and they yanked their votes.

At that time, the Treasury exercised a little-known option to bypass Congress, and all went well. But Congress later passed a law to close that approach, so now we need their support.

And they've failed to give it.

This isn't about 'principle' or 'voting your conscience,' as  Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA) claims. How did that kind of reasoning work in the 2000 election?

Whether or not you think we need protection for homeowners and tighter regulation of credit default swaps (as both Inslee and I do),  we need swift action, even if the bailout package is imperfect.

The longer we delay, the more it costs us. Look at the effects of  allowing Lehman to fail, which then hurt AIG, which then weakened Merrill Lynch, which led to a run on Washington Mutual, which increased worry about Wachovia.

Compare that to the swift and comprehensive protection during the Mexican bailout. By acting decisively, the crisis passed quickly and at less cost.

I know that some people feel banks deserve to fail - see my 'moral hazard' blog from last week, and several of the comments after the Inslee link above (and this  thoughtful response from blogger Ken Smith) -  but this is a market crisis that affects all of us.

I'm not out to punish any bank, or hedge fund, or C.E.O.  I don't care about them. I do care about my family, and my friends, and my neighbor, and the rest of Americans hurt by the crisis.

And we deserve a Congress that does, too.

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