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Washington Gone Wild
Congress's destructive reaction to the AIG bonuses

Friday, March 20, 2009

"SHORTSIGHTED," "opportunistic" and "irresponsible" aptly describe the actions of those who fueled the debacle on Wall Street. They are also apt descriptors for lawmakers more focused on currying favor with a public outraged at the bonuses handed out by bailed-out companies than on fixing the fundamental and still potentially disastrous cracks in the financial system. By changing the terms of a deal months after it was entered into, Congress will show the government to be an unreliable partner, further draining confidence from the financial system and endangering long-term recovery.

Yesterday, the House had the feel of a mob scene, with lawmaker after furious lawmaker vying for floor time to rail against the $165 million in taxpayer-funded bonuses lavished on employees of American International Group's disgraced Financial Products division. House members rushed through a bill to impose an effective tax rate of 90 percent on bonuses paid to AIG employees and employees of other firms that accepted at least $5 billion from the Troubled Assets Relief Program -- though when then-Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. pressed many of those firms to take the funds last fall, government interference in their compensation systems was not part of the deal. The legislation, approved by a vote of 328 to 93, would affect employees who received bonuses on or after Jan. 1 and whose household incomes exceed $250,000. Late yesterday afternoon, lawmakers on the Senate Finance Committee introduced their own, broader version of the bonus clawback that would affect firms that accepted as little as $100 million of government funds.

We understand that legislators are hearing from furious constituents, and we understand why those voters are angry. It is unquestionably galling that some of the employees who crafted and pushed risky derivatives that wreaked financial havoc worldwide should line their pockets with some of the $173 billion in public funds meant to prop up the too-big-to-fail insurance behemoth and its global business partners. The bonus anger resonates, too, because of a larger sense many voters have that the people who helped trigger this whole economic mess are not the people paying the greatest price.

But elected officials have a responsibility to lead, not just to pander; to weigh what makes sense for the country, not just what feels good. The effective confiscation of legally earned and contractually promised payments may well be unconstitutional. It is almost certain to be unhelpful. The bonuses paid at AIG represent less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the bailout provided so far; recouping those funds will have no discernible fiscal effect. But it will help drive away the best talent at the firm, and despite all the glib messages of "good riddance," that is a strange action for an owner -- and the American public now owns AIG -- to take. But the real damage goes well beyond any effect on AIG. The economy continues to suffer from a shortage of credit. The government needs financial institutions -- including relatively healthy ones -- to take public funds that will then be lent to responsible businesses and consumers. The Obama administration reportedly intends in the next week or two to announce the details of a "private-public partnership" to buy troubled assets from ailing banks. The participation of private hedge funds, investment banks and other firms will be key to the plan's success. But what executive in his right mind will enter into a deal if he or she believes the rules can be changed six months or one year down the road purely on the basis of polls and politicians' fears?

Rather than bringing reason to the debate, President Obama has stoked the anger, and last night, the White House commented favorably on the House action. Perhaps Mr. Obama believes that only by lining up with an angry public now can he persuade it, and Congress, to approve the hundreds of billions more he will need to right the credit system. But he might have expressed his sympathy with public anger over irresponsible behavior in the financial sector while also steering the government in a more constructive direction. The absence of backbone on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue this week could carry a steep price.

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