Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 3, 2010

Sooner or later, the public is going to figure it out.

The conventional story line is this: Big banks and other financial institutions took inordinate risks with the people’s money and Congress rode to the rescue last year and earlier this year. Therefore, having been bailed out and newly enriched by taxpayers’ money, the financial industry might be humbled and Congress might be vigilant.

The real story line is this: Congress — Republicans and Democrats alike — are deeply entwined with the financial industry. There’s no arms-length dealing. It was the failure — not the absence — of regulatory oversight that allowed the likes of Bernie Madoff to flourish. It was at the insistence of the likes of Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who wrote legislation that set up the housing bubble and then pressured Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, backed by public dollars, to buy up mortgage packages that were as hollow as a drum.

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This is not rumor, it’s on-the-record fact: Although Dodd likes to portray himself as a champion of the little guy, he admits he’s the person who placed the language in bailout legislation that required — ordered — that contractual bonuses be paid to executives of failed companies with taxpayer money.

For some reason, however, most citizens seem oblivious.

The national media posits every story as Republicans vs. Democrats.

President Barack Obama met privately with key financial industry leaders at the White House last month, hoping to jawbone them into freeing up credit for small businesses and mortgage holders.

Within hours, he was sitting down for a TV interview. “I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of, you know, fat cat bankers on Wall Street,” the president said on “60 Minutes.” “Nothing has been more frustrating to me this year than having to salvage a financial system at great expense to taxpayers that was precipitated, that was caused in part by completely irresponsible actions on Wall Street.”

The natural follow-up question was why, then, did the White House direct bonus payments? Or, didn’t Congress set this up by creating incentives for predatory lenders to get hefty fees up front for passing out money like candy for mortgages on overpriced properties to borrowers who could not qualify under longstanding banking standards?

But, of course, those questions were not asked.

The truth is there is a symbiosis between big government and big banking. They need each other and they know it. We’re not just talking about campaign donations and lobbying, either. The nation prospers when there’s a healthy banking industry and when the nation prospers, the government prospers.

It’s equally true that the too-cozy relationship that persists even today is poison for the economy and, thus, for working people.

When the public figures that out, “change” in Washington will be more than what it has been — a campaign slogan.