BEFORE CONGRESS adjourns, it's going to have to come up with more billions for the S&L cleanup. Otherwise the operation will run out of money sometime around the end of the year and come to a full stop for several months until the next Congress can pass legislation. That would mean more delays in the process of putting the failed savings and loan associations out of business, with still higher costs to the public. But if the need for more money is obvious, the maneuver over the bill is anything but simple.
Last week the Treasury Department sent a letter to Congress reminding it that the money is running out. The House Banking Committee replied by inviting the secretary, Nicholas F. Brady, to come up and testify. Mr. Brady declined. Doubtless it occurred to him that at the present delicate moment in the congressional election campaign some of the committee might unkindly seize the opportunity to try to identify the Bush administration more closely with the S&L mess. For the present Mr. Brady has a strong incentive to be prudent rather than heroic, and to make the case for the money in dry, formal letters rather than in person under hostile questioning in front of television cameras.
This kind of jousting uses up valuable time, but it looks as though no one seriously wants to derail the cleanup. Congress will probably provide money in time. The next question is: How much money? By present estimate, the amount needed to carry the job through the end of the fiscal year next September is about $40 billion. But as an alternative the Treasury has suggested that Congress provide $20 billion now, with another installment by the next Congress in the spring.
It's imperative to keep going as fast as possible to shut down or sell off the failed S&Ls, for their losses continue daily and fall directly onto the taxpayer. But it would not be at all a bad idea to require Congress to take up the S&Ls again next spring, after the elections, with full hearings in which the administration would have the opportunity to defend its record in detail.
The obscure agency that's running the cleanup is spending money faster than any but four of the federal government's 14 departments, and, unlike them, it is working in unprecedented circumstances requiring it to make new policy as it goes. This subject is a painful and embarrassing one that many people in Congress as well as the administration would prefer to handle as quietly as possible. Henry Gonzalez, chairman of the House Banking Committee, is one of the few who would like to see more public attention devoted to the S&Ls. He's right to keep pressing for it.