LAMBRO: Keys to auto overhaul

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A burst of bailouts that has led to increasing federal control and ownership of big businesses has set off alarm bells among free-market critics who fear it’s putting America on a slippery slope to a government-run economy.

The recent, failed bailout bill to rescue U.S. automakers from insolvency - which proposed giving a government “car czar” unprecedented powers over the companies - was the latest move that had critics sounding the alarm. “The moment you extend large taxpayer subsidies to an industry or a company, you develop a fiduciary obligation to the taxpayers because their money is at risk. That leads to a slippery slope that is very disturbing to us,” said Mike Franc, vice president and government policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

“The slippery slope is that once you become a part owner and develop an equity stake in the company, then it becomes logical to want to run the company on a day-to-day basis, and that’s the worst possible outcome,” Mr. Franc told me. Not only would the proposed bailout of Detroit’s automakers establish a federal overseer to govern their day-to-day corporate decision-making; it would give him broad authority over its transactions and even prohibit the carmakers from challenging state environmental laws in court.

That would prevent the car companies from freely challenging federal policies they do not support - an extraordinary expansion of government power over basic constitutional rights. “That’s a huge First Amendment price to pay for a government bailout,” a top trade association executive told me last week.

“I think we are in a consequential historical debate that goes way beyond just saving individual companies. I mean, where does it stop? The majority of the public does not support this stuff,” said Dirk Van Dongen, who heads the 40,000-member National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, which opposed the bailout.

The NADW’s board supported the Bush administration’s $700 billion plan to pump money into the financial sector as the economy teetered on the edge of catastrophe. That was a systemic crisis that threatened to bring down the financial network upon which the entire economy depended for credit to function and survive. “We saw it like a utility that was needed to power the entire system,” Mr. Van Dongen told me.

But he and many free-market groups now worry that the government’s buyout frenzy is in danger of becoming a trend and that the automotive bailout bid was a sign of things to come should the economy worsen and other business sectors come to Washington seeking further handouts.

In the shallow, shorthand, 30-second, sound-bite reporting we have on the nightly news, few Americans understand how deeply the government has become financially intertwined in the financial system’s balance sheet.

The government is not just holding hundreds of billions in debt but also equity stakes in major banking institutions, which were required to put it up as collateral. The deal with the Big Three automakers called for “warrants for equity” equal to at least 20 percent of the loans. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how the current situation can easily tumble from stock ownership into demands over how things are run.

One need only look at the money-losing enterprises that government has tried to run - Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac or Amtrak - and it quickly becomes apparent that bureaucrats do not know how to run a profitable business.

The car companies are in enough trouble, but the prospect of a federal “car czar” running them would be even worse. These are “the same kind of people who run the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Post Office, not the most reassuring image for most Americans,” Mr. Franc said.

Last week, Democratic leaders argued that bankruptcy of the automakers would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs among suppliers tied to the industry as well as numerous banks that hold their corporate bonds.

But a Heritage Foundation study says that if the car companies were to enter bankruptcy protection, where a judge would force their creditors and unions to make concessions, they would emerge leaner and stronger as a result of needed downsizing and restructuring.

Eventually, other automotive manufacturers here like Nissan, Toyota and Honda (the only major car companies building plants in this country) would see their sales rise and expand their work force and supplier contracts accordingly - cushioning the impact on the economy.

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About the Author
Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is the chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, the author of five books and a nationally syndicated columnist. His twice-weekly United Feature Syndicate column appears in newspapers across the country, including The Washington Times. He received the Warren Brookes Award For Excellence In Journalism in 1995 and in that same year was the host and co-writer of ...

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