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Paulson, Congress assume crisis position

The financial bailout's road to passage this week depends on more than dealmaking — it will require lawmakers' fortitude.
/ Source: National Journal

It's for someone else to say for sure that our economic and credit crisis is the greatest since the Great Depression. Some of our nation's best-known and longest-standing financial institutions will soon be gone or permanently altered and some fear that big names in other critical sectors might soon bite the dust as a result of the credit crunch and weakened economic conditions.

The economics team at the New York-based International Strategy and Investment Group, probably the best around and certainly the one that tends to be cautious, reports that "growth has downshifted, and there wasn't much to begin with," and that "their forecasting models had deteriorated more than we expected."

In a report issued Monday, ISI said: "We're probably seeing a second financial crisis wave. The first was the subprime crisis wave. Now we're seeing the Wall Street financial crisis wave. Economic activity tends to weaken after a financial crisis wave."

ISI is now forecasting a mild recession followed by a very slow recovery, and predicting that the National Bureau of Economic Research will officially declare a recession.

To be sure, it's as much a matter of semantics as anything else. If we are not in a recession today, we're so close that it doesn't make much difference -- or if we don't tip into one, we won't miss it by much. Very bad is very bad, and the importance of small gradations isn't really that great in the end.

But it seems almost safe to say that things are pretty bad and that "mistakes were made" on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, in the legislative and executive branches, as well as at the Federal Reserve Board and at both ends of the Washington-New York shuttle. There is plenty of blame to go around.

A partisan pretending that all the blame belongs in the other party is definitely not someone to stand next to during the next lightning storm.

Policy experts and lobbyists who ought to know are confident that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr.'s $700 billion rescue plan will be enacted, largely intact. As one put it privately: "I am very doubtful that Congress or Treasury will allow this to bog down. [House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank] and Paulson are adults and deal-makers who respect one another. There is too much fear for their teams to not back what they put together."

At the end of the day, that's probably right. But a bit of caution is in order, based on the track record of each side -- in their current situations and when majority and minority party status was reversed -- from where it is now.

For Democrats, there is the NIH (Not Invented Here) problem -- the idea that any program they didn't think up can't be all good -- and many in the party cannot resist the temptation to lard up any big package going through Congress with pet programs and ideas.

But for Republicans, there seems to be the feeling among more than a few that their new minority party status absolves them of any obligation to be responsible, to take a constructive role in governing.

With the national debt closing in on $10 trillion this week, looking past this election, it is sobering to contemplate how this country will deal with crises such as funding Medicare and Social Security, public infrastructure needs such as streets, highways, bridges, mass transit and sewer systems and education -- never mind other hot topics like health care reform, energy independence and preparing young people to compete in a far more competitive global and technological economy.

How those pressing needs are funded through the current tax system is a complete mystery, prompting many to wonder how long will it be before there is some kind of broad-based consumption or business activity tax in our future and how a new president could begin to deal with some of these challenges without moving toward some form of such a value-added tax.

Does a newly elected president dare try to overhaul our entire tax system? Is there any way to address these problems without doing so?

Those are the issues that should be asked in this campaign, yet neither major-party nominee is crazy enough to give a candid answer.

That's the problem we have today, the last edition of "Profiles in Courage" has already gone to the printer. There is no payoff for honesty or candor.

Before any of that can happen, though, the Paulson package has to be dealt with. The question is whether Democrats risk jeopardizing the economy further by delaying this legislation and whether Republicans risk being perceived as more interested in scoring partisan points and making fruitless gestures than in addressing an urgent crisis at a time of national peril.

There is a real risk in both happening. This is the true test of congressional leadership, forcing rank-and-file members to do the right thing, as opposed to what feels good and scores political points.

At the end of the day, the package more or less goes through. But it might be a very, very, long day.