WASHINGTON — As the list of ailing companies seeking government help grows, it is anybody's guess where the Treasury Department's largesse will stop.
The $700 billion bailout bill is so vague that virtually any U.S. company could be eligible for government help.
While the capital infusions announced this month will be directed only to banks, Treasury spokeswoman Brookly McLaughlin confirmed the law allows the department to create other rescue programs "open to a broader set of financial institutions."
As the bill is written, "financial institutions" don't have to be banks or financial entities. In theory, any company could declare itself a financial institution and ask Treasury to grant it temporary aid if its rescue is deemed "necessary to promote financial market stability."
Critics said Congress should have set a clearer definition for the kinds of companies that could be rescued.
"Talk about the barn doors being left open — it's like they left off the walls and roof, too," said Bert Ely, an independent banking consultant. He suggested that under the bill, an airline could transfer future revenue streams into a subsidiary and ask the government to buy shares in that new "financial institution."
The only limit to what Treasury could do, Ely said, is the bill's $700 billion ceiling.
Representatives of the auto, insurance and other industries are already seeking government help, indicating they think they qualify because of their financing units. But McLaughlin's statement suggests that even companies without financing operations could qualify as well.
No company outside of banking, insurance or auto manufacturing has yet said it will ask for aid from the bailout. But airlines and home builders are lobbying for government help to prop them up through the economic downturn — either under the bailout bill or some other legislation.
And if insurance and auto lobbyists succeed in their efforts to tap the bailout money, experts said other industries would probably follow.
"Home builders employ a lot of people, and they're probably in crisis mode," said Tom Runiewicz, an industrial economist at consulting firm Global Insight. "If the auto sector is in line for funding, why not the home builders?"
Dave Seiders, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders, said his group is more likely to focus on a proposed new stimulus package that congressional Democrats are pushing. But he stressed that "the housing sector is still at the core of the economy's difficulty and the financial market's stability" and so might qualify for part of the $700 billion.
In fact, the modern economy is so interconnected that virtually any business could argue for its importance to the broader markets, agreed Daniel Meckstroth, chief economist with the Manufacturers Alliance, an industry group.
"The trouble is, you're picking and choosing. You're deciding who's going to win and who's going to lose," Meckstroth said. "It's kind of like applying this 'too big to fail' doctrine to the private sector, and it's not fair."
"Too big to fail" is how federal officials justified decisions earlier this year to bail out mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and insurer American International Group Inc.
Treasury's McLaughlin would not rule out the possibility that nonfinancial companies could benefit from the law's ambiguity, and she would not say whether any such discussions have been held.
A spokesman for the House Financial Services Committee, which helped draft the legislation, agreed that the loose definitions in the bill could open the door to nonfinancial companies lining up for aid.
"The language is certainly broad," said spokesman Steven Adamske. "We did not set this up so we would have the opportunity to micromanage what they are doing. We need to provide broad policy oversight."
Scott Lilly, a longtime House staffer and senior fellow with the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said Treasury's broad reading makes congressional oversight even more important.
"If they're going to assume that the language provides them with that kind of latitude, they need to go back and have that conversation with Congress and get consensus on that fact," Lilly said.
Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said Treasury is not bound by "fixed rules" in implementing its bailout programs. He said the key will be whether companies can persuade Treasury officials that their failure would lead to "severe dislocation" in employment or other economic fundamentals.
If Treasury spurns overtures from bailout-thirsty industries, he said, many industries might seek government support as part of a future stimulus package.
"Every one of those industries that gets rejected by the Treasury is going to come back to Congress unless things are booming for them, but I'm not sure every one of those industries is going to get the relief they want," Ornstein said.
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