No Time to Read Bailout Bill


Yesterday I wrote about how the recently passed stimulus bill was available for public perusal just 13 hours before Congress began considering it–and most of that time was in the wee hours of the morning. Today, as part of our campaign to urge Congress to #ReadtheBill, I want to take us down memory lane to the bailout bill passed by Congress last fall, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008.

Last September, the economy was in a tailspin as financial institutions teetered and fell, victims of investments gone badly. First then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson took the extraordinary step of effectively nationalizing mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Then, by mid-month, Lehman Brothers, a Wall Street institution, filed for bankruptcy. Two days later, the Treasury department announced it was bailing out insurance behemoth American Insurance Group. Within several days Paulson announced that he would be seeking from Congress the biggest financial bailout in U.S. history, to the tune of $700 billion, and that he wanted the help fast. “We need this to be clean and quick,” he said, warning that without the bailout, the financial crisis would soon affect ordinary Americans.

Paulson’s original proposal, just three pages long, offered little in the way of specifics or accountability. The version that the House took up for debate on September 29 had swelled to 110 pages. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had posted this text on her Web site on September 28, a step forward for transparency. Demand to see the legislation was so high that the House servers crashed. Overall, the bill was available for public persual about 12 hours before the House began consideration.

As the debate raged on, countless House members, Democrats and Republicans alike, decried the process that required them to vote on complex legislation with such an enormous price-tag and so little time for consideration. “The Bush Administration is rushing us into spending $700 billion without stopping to think things through, because there just isn’t time for thinking. They say, trust us, this is necessary,” said Pete Visclosky. “While I recognize the economic dangers this Nation faces, I deeply regret that we have accepted artificial deadlines in a rush to do something,” said Jeffrey Fortenberry. The House eventually rejected the bill by a vote of 228 to 205.

But the bailout bill did not go away. The Senate hunkered down and came up with a new version on October 1. Adding a series of tax cuts for businesses and the alternative energy industry as “sweeteners” to try to attract votes lost before, the Senate bill was now 169 pages long. Again, there was protest about the rush to pass the legislation. “Had Congress been able to use the regular committee process to craft a bipartisan and comprehensive legislation, the resulting bill may have gained my support,” said Sen. Michael Enzi. “Unfortunately, Congress has been pressured into passing this bill in two weeks by Treasury and Wall Street. A rescue plan of this scale requires a clear plan of action with a substantial chance of success. This plan has neither.”

Despite these objections, the Senate voted to approve the bill that very day, 74 to 25. The House voted two days later, just 29 hours after the legislation became available for public viewing. President Bush signed the bill into law the same day.