- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 2, 2008

COMMENTARY:

Monday’s House vote to kill the bipartisan economic rescue plan was a stunning profile in cowardice, disregarding a mountain of evidence that the U.S. economy is teetering on the brink of the worst calamity since 1929.

Credit markets were drying up as businesses found it harder than ever to get loans. Housing values continued to plummet and mortgage debts deepened, threatening to drive more banking institutions into insolvency. Home sales fell to new lows. Mortgage rates moved higher. The economy was shrinking - fast.

When 95 Democrats and 133 Republicans in the House voted to reject the $700 billion rescue package, Wall Street sent stocks into a nosedive, with the Dow plunging 778 points, the biggest one-day decline in its history.

The U.S. economy was growing progressively weaker and, worse, the virus was spreading into European, Asian and Latin American markets, as banks were failing in Great Britain, Spain and elsewhere. U.S. exports in the global economy were weakening. Imports were down, undermining our trading partners.

It isn’t just the bears who have lost confidence in this crisis. Once-bullish Wall Street economists like David Malpass have grown much more pessimistic about our economy - even if the plan had passed. “We now expect a sharp slowdown, which could well be the start of a recession,” he told clients last week.

This is the environment in which petulant, economically ignorant House members denied the country’s economic problems were really as bad as Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said they were. The ideological and fiscal arguments against the plan on both sides of the aisle were preposterous on their face.

Free market advocates said America’s free enterprise capitalist system rewards success and punishes failure, and government has no business intervening in the marketplace to pick the winners and losers. That is unarguable when the economy is working as it should, but when entire economic sectors are failing as a result of a credit collapse or a loss of confidence in the nation’s banking and other financial institutions, it is sometimes necessary for government to step in to restore them. This is one of those times.

Democrats, ever playing class warfare, portray this plan as a bailout of rich Wall Street tycoons, when in fact it is aimed at unclogging the blocked credit markets on which Main Street America depends for its survival.

Both sides decry the $700 billion cost, insisting it will overwhelm the federal budget with a mountain of new debt, the same arguments used against the savings-and-loan bailout in the 1980s. But most if not all of the debt assets and equity stakes assumed by the Treasury will be sold eventually in the market and the proceeds used to pay off that debt, probably in full. The next administration will be the beneficiary of that debt reduction.

America has been through similar situations and each time the economy emerged stronger than before.

The classic liquidity crisis was the Panic of 1907 when there was a run on the banks, the stock market was in a tailspin and the economy on the verge of collapse. There was no Federal Reserve to come to the rescue then, but investment banker J.P. Morgan and a group of financiers, acting like the Fed, provided the financing that saved key institutions from failing and effectively ended the crisis. That’s what Mr. Paulson would do if Congress approves the bipartisan plan now before it.

These are challenges that take political courage to overcome, when, as Abraham Lincoln once said at the lowest point in the Civil War, we sometimes have to “think anew so we can act anew.”

Sadly, political courage was in short supply in the House on Monday. Too many frightened lawmakers were thinking of their own skin, keeping their jobs, and winning re-election, instead of thinking about their country and the well-being of our economy.

Braver souls knew that inaction was not an option. “If I didn’t think we were on the brink of an economic disaster, it would be the easiest thing in the world for me to say no to this,” House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio said. “But I think the risk in not acting is much larger than the risk in acting.”

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