- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2008

At the same time an Associated Press analysis found that banks getting taxpayer bailouts gave their top executives nearly $1.6 billion in salaries, bonuses and other benefits last year, a Rasmussen poll reported that only 9 percent of Americans approved of Congress’ performance. Is there a connection?

You betcha. In each case, failure has been rewarded. Banks reward the helmsmen that run them aground and get bailed out by the taxpayers, courtesy of Congress - where incumbents are re-elected year after year at a rate of over 90 percent despite their collective disapproval rating. What is wrong with this picture?

Let’s acknowledge upfront that huge financial institutions handling billions of dollars and thousands of employees should have executives getting big salaries, or they simply won’t attract top talent in a competitive environment. But if the supposed top talent fails miserably through bad actions, the bonuses and benefits should go away - perhaps along with the executives responsible.

Yet the AP analysis showed example after example where this did not happen at bailed out banks. For example, the Sen. Joe McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”

As for Congress, an “Extreme Makeover” might not even be enough. Just 14 percent of voters believe members of Congress are more interested in helping people than their own careers, and 34 percent believe most members of Congress are corrupt. Most! Only 2 percent of voters - a minuscule fraction - think Congress is doing an excellent job. There have been enough corruption scandals in Congress, instances of selfishness, and partisan bickering to lend credence to such perceptions.

It’s easy to pile on Congress, just as it is on bankers, and the perceptions are somewhat unfair. But perception is reality for some. When financial institutions and Congress fall into ill repute, neither the free enterprise system nor the American democratic system of government is well served. As the new year beckons, business and financial leaders and members of Congress clearly need to improve their image. A good start would be to accept responsibility for their actions and demonstrate to the American public that they are not out to get all they can at any cost, especially from problems they are at least partially at fault for creating.

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