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Fed's new role must not be permanent

David Frum

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Kai Ryssdal: Here's the latest effort from Congress at keeping an eye on how Treasury spends that $700 billion it's got to save the economy. Don't let banks that take the bailout give executive bonuses. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle said today they think that'd be a lousy idea. Commentator David Frum says the bailout plan itself isn't so hot either. But get used to it.


David Frum: Nothing is more permanent than a temporary program. That's an old saying and a true one.

When the United States entered the First World War in 1917, Congress granted the president broad emergency powers over international trade. Those powers were not rescinded until 1975!

Who knows when we'll see the end of the government's new emergency role in banks, insurance and possibly automobiles and pension funds, as well.

We may think we are fighting fires., but we are also unintentionally building institutions that could endure for some considerable time -- institutions that nobody much wants, but that we have no clear plans for liquidating. Decisions made in haste and without much thought in 2008 may end up profoundly shaping the economy of 2018 or 2028 or 2038.

The government may soon feel compelled to order banks to lend. But once government gets accustomed to this power, it will not be so readily surrendered. We need exit strategies.

It's urgent that every emergency action be matched with a plan to undo that action -- sunset clauses in the law, countervailing powers within the executive. How about empaneling an independent board to monitor and report on progress toward the early termination of the government role in finance? Or creating in the Treasury Department an Assistant Secretary for Privatization and Liquidation to counterbalance the Assistant Secretary, who already exists, who now runs the troubled asset program.

The humble title of assistant secretary conceals enormous power, and we will need an equally aggressive official to offset that power. As James Madison warned two centuries ago: Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.

Above all, we will desperately need from the press, the Congress and the people constant questioning, scrutiny and pressure against this unwanted, undesirable, and unsustainable new federal role in banking and finance.

Ryssdal: David Frum is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His most recent book is called "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again."

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