Congress needs to take bailout back

Robert Reich

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Kai Ryssdal: With two months 'til the inauguration and Congress approaching the end of its lame duck session, it's entirely possible that we have seen the last of Henry Paulson defending himself in a congressional hearing. He spent most of yesterday doing just that over how he's chosen to spend about half of the $700 billion bailout package. Commentator Robert Reich wishes he'd spent it differently.


Robert Reich: Hank Paulson has just about burned through $300 billion, and it's not clear what the public has got out of it. Perhaps things would be worse without the bailout, but they're certainly no better. Wall Street banks have not significantly stepped up their loans to small businesses, college students, car buyers or distressed homeowners. Much of the auto industry is on the verge of bankruptcy. And the rate of foreclosures is rising.

What happened to all the money? About a third has gone into dividends the banks are paying their shareholders. Some of the rest into executive salaries and bonuses. Another portion toward acquisitions designed to raise share values. Another chunk for bailing out giant insurer AIG.

That's not what taxpayers bargained for. Paulson originally told Congress he'd use the money to buy mortgage-backed securities that were clogging the financial system. He'd create a market for them by holding a kind of reverse auction, buying them from the banks at the lowest prices they'd be willing to sell them for.

But Paulson has abandoned that strategy and is now just handing the money directly to the banks and AIG -- all of which are using the money for their own purposes. It's the worst type of trickle-down economics. Taxpayers are sending the money upward, and almost none of it is trickling back down.

The lame-duck Congress should amend the so-called Troubled Asset Relief Program to prohibit banks that are receiving the money from paying dividends, executive bonuses or deferred compensation, or doing acquisitions.

And Congress should save the rest of the $700 billion program for a new administration that will put it to better uses. For example, as FDIC Chair Sheila Bair has suggested, use the money to guarantee payment of mortgages whose terms are eased by lenders. Use it also to restructure automobile companies whose creditors, executives, shareholders and workers agree to put up money, as well. Use it to guarantee loans made to credit-worthy small businesses, college students, car buyers and others who at this moment cannot get credit -- and who therefore cannot keep this economy moving forward.

In other words, use it for a bottom-up bailout rather than trickle down.

Ryssdal: Robert Reich is a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is called, "Supercapitalism."

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