“I am frightful to the point of almost panic that I do not see a solution in your plan,” Sen. Jim Bunning, Kentucky Republican, told Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr.
He noted that Mr. Paulson will not be in office after Jan. 20, when the next president is sworn in, and will not be accountable for any failure.
Mr. Paulson was flummoxed after senators expressed outrage that he quietly expanded the bailout program last weekend, citing a Washington Times article on his plans to purchase student loans, credit cards, auto loans and other “troubled” bank assets besides mortgages. Mr. Paulson defended his assumption of broad powers to address the crisis.
The Treasury and Fed chiefs expressed confidence that the plan will calm stricken markets and made impassioned pleas for quick action. They stood their ground in particular against Democratic demands for equity and compensation caps, which they said would make the bailout unworkable and lead to failure.
Mr. Bernanke directly confronted the biggest problem perceived in the plan drafted by Mr. Paulson, who was chairman of Goldman Sachs before joining the Treasury: It appears to bail out Wall Street while doing nothing for Main Street businesses and consumers.
“I’m a college professor. … I never worked on Wall Street. I don’t have those interests, those connections,” Mr. Bernanke said. “My interest is solely for the strength and the recovery of the U.S. economy.”
“If this is not done, there will be significant adverse consequences for average people in the United States,” he said, including recession, rising joblessness, loss of credit and accelerating foreclosures.
Mr. Bernanke pointed out that he is one of the nation’s foremost experts on the financial crisis that swept the country into the Great Depression in the 1930s.
Suggesting that such a situation could recur, Mr. Bernanke said he has concluded that if the credit crisis on Wall Street continues, “the economy will just not be able to recover.”
Committee members told Mr. Paulson that their constituents are overwhelmingly against the plan.
Several protesters found their way into the committee room. One carried a placard saying, “No Blank Check,” and another shouted, “Just remember, the fox is guarding the henhouse.”
“I share the outrage out there,” Mr. Paulson said. “It’s embarrassing. There’s a lot of blame to go around.”
He pointed to the Wall Street firms that devised the “overly complex” derivative securities that turned into toxic debt, rating agencies that gave the securities AAA ratings, and lenders and borrowers who stretched rules and lied to get loans.
Mr. Paulson said he has agreed to Democrats’ changes in the Treasury plan requiring the government to help prevent defaulting homeowners from losing their homes to foreclosure and establishing stringent congressional oversight of the bailout program.
He also expressed sympathy for other Democratic demands.