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Band of Dems Blasts Geithner Plan


Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (WDCpix)

Appearing before a House panel on Thursday, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner made his best pitch for legislation granting the White House broad new powers to seize Wall Street firms when their collapse might torpedo others in the industry.

It didn’t go so well.

[Congress1]A number of Democrats on the House Financial Services Committee unfurled a laundry list of charges against the proposal, including the prominent concern that the bill would empower the president — and future presidents — with unlimited bailout authority to prop up “too-big-to-fail” institutions at the expense of taxpayers.

“Mr. Secretary, I’m not a man that fears this administration or you,” Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa.) told Geithner. “But I do fear the accumulation of power exercised by someone in the future that can be extraordinary.”

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) echoed those concerns, arguing that the bill represents “the most unprecedented transfer of power to the executive branch to make decisions about both spending and taxes in history — all without congressional approval.”

The tone of the comments could foreshadow a tough road ahead, not only for the White House, but for Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who introduced legislation this week that grants the Treasury’s request to broaden the president’s “resolution authority.” The bill is one of the final pieces of the finance-reform puzzle that Frank has been putting together all year. But by conceding most of the administration’s requests, the Massachusetts Democrat — who asked no questions of Geithner Thursday — has riled others on his panel, who want to see more taxpayer protections in the bill.

Frank’s proposal would create an oversight commission to monitor and regulate Wall Street’s investment houses and other non-bank institutions to ensure that they’re on solid footing. Federal regulators could, for example, force companies to increase capital reserves or decrease the amount of debt they’re holding, if the scenario was deemed a threat to topple the firm.

The bill would also empower the White House to swoop in and dismantle failing Wall Street institutions in order to minimize the impact on the finance system as a whole — a strategy modeled on the authority of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to intervene when commercial banks are threatening to fall.

To protect taxpayers, Frank’s bill aims to have failed-company shareholders and creditors cover the cost of the government help. If more money is needed, taxpayers would initially pick up the tab, to be reimbursed later by an after-the-fact tax levied against other large Wall Street institutions that would presumably benefit from the stabilizing effects of the government intervention.

Supporters maintain that the proposal does not empower bailouts at all, but would simply allow the government to manage the deaths of failed companies so they don’t drag down the financial system with them — a kind-of controlled euthanasia designed to protect consumers from the hubris of the finance industry.

“If we do have to step in, it will be very painful for those companies” Frank told MSNBC Thursday. “They will be put out of business. The CEOs will be fired. Shareholders will be wiped out. We are not going to have a situation where people can expect to be bailed out and live happily ever after.”

Geithner, for his part, denied that the proposal authorizes the White House to tap federal coffers at all. Asked by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) if the bill grants “the authority to spend the taxpayers’ money to bail them out if you deem that to be a good way of handling that situation,” the Treasury secretary answered with one word: “No.”

Yet the House bill empowers the administration to make loans, buy assets, and invest in failing institutions if regulators determine those steps are required to prevent “serious adverse effects on financial stability or economic conditions in the United States.” To do so, of course, the White House would use taxpayer funds. And no monetary limits are specified.

And while the bill aims to recover the taxpayer dollars within 60 months of the bailout, Sherman notes that the White House would also have the authority to extend that deadline indefinitely.

“It could be 60 years,” he said.

That these bailout protections are limited only to those institutions whose failure is deemed a system-wide threat is another source of criticism on Capitol Hill. Many lawmakers and finance experts contend that that stipulation creates an unfair advantage for big firms over their smaller competitors. For example, they could get capital at lower rates if lenders know they have access to some level of federal lifeline. That dynamic, critics argue, would act to promote “too-big-to-fail” institutions, rather than reining them in.

“Why should the American people have to sit out there and see us creating mammoth organizations that nobody says we have the authority to control or limit, but we have the authority to help them when they get into trouble?” asked Kanjorski.

There are still other concerns. For example, some lawmakers are attacking the proposed bailout tax on large institutions, arguing that it should be collected beforehand as a type of insurance fund, rather than imposed after a competitor goes under.

“No more TARP. No more bailouts,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.). “Let them [the companies] create the fund, the systemic risk fund, that will guarantee that the American taxpayer will no longer have to be involved should they cause such a crisis ever again.”

Geithner responded that such a system would encourage even more risky behavior from the largest companies. “If you create a fund in advance, there’s a risk you’re going to create more moral hazard,” Geithner said. “People will live the expectation where the government will come in and protect them. We don’t want to create that expectation. That’s why we think it’s better to do it after the fact.”

Meanwhile, conservatives and representatives in the finance industry are blasting the notion that solvent companies should be forced to pay to bail out the mistakes of competitors. “Should Ford bear the costs of compensating the taxpayer for what happened to G.M. and Chrysler?” asked Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas.).

Gutierrez pointed out yet another concern: Placing such broad new powers in the hands of Treasury leaders – who often arrive directly to the job from previous positions of power on Wall Street – creates the impression of the fox guarding the hen house.

“How do we know the next secretary of the Treasury won’t be the former CEO of Goldman Sachs as they have been in the past?” he asked. “They seem to be interwoven, and that’s what the American public sees.

“They see the interconnectedness in terms of their power, their influence and always to their benefit.”

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