IF THE UNITED States does experience an economic catastrophe in the months and years ahead, and if future historians wish to identify the date on which it began, yesterday may turn out to be as good a candidate as any for the title of Black Monday. Despite agreement among the White House and Democratic and Republican congressional leaders on a financial rescue package, back-benchers from both parties scuttled the plan in the House yesterday, by a vote of 228 to 205. Amid news of spreading financial distress in Europe, the Dow Jones industrial average plunged more than 777 points. Yet the gathering darkness is as much political in nature as economic. Just when it seemed that American democracy had at least temporarily conquered its ugliest habits of partisanship, that the people's elected representatives were about to make a tough decision in the long-term national interest -- pique and polarization carried the day.
It was quite a spectacle. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi delivered a bitter floor speech in which she expressed astonishment at the bill's price tag even as she weakly urged its adoption, and in which she blamed the entire situation on President Bush and the Republicans even as she was depending on Republican votes. Rather than stifling their own reactive impulses, a dozen or so wavering Republicans, according to Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), used Ms. Pelosi's speech as an excuse to vote no, simultaneously scapegoating Ms. Pelosi and taking revenge on her -- at the country's expense. Democrats, in turn, denounced the Republican leadership's failure to discipline its troops. And then Congress marched out to a scheduled recess, with no clear plan for taking the bill up again.
We understand that angry constituents have been bombarding members of Congress with e-mails and phone calls protesting the bailout. We understand that the bill did not offer enough breaks for homeowners to please the populist left and that it contained too much federal intervention to please the populist right. That's what happens in a compromise. Given the poor marketing of a proposal whose advertised $700 billion price tag will probably never materialize in full, and given the fact that the rapidly developing credit crisis has not quite been felt on Main Street, we are not surprised at the angry correspondence from voters -- or, rather, from certain self-selected voters. But among the 133 Republicans and 95 Democrats who voted no yesterday, there are certainly some who know better, and their lack of political courage is stunning. Perhaps their votes will help them get what they want in November: a return trip to Washington. But if this foolish result is not undone soon, the ensuing economic woe could make every House member's reelection victory seem Pyrrhic indeed.