Repaid TARP funds not ‘free money’ for Congress

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 9, 2010

People with sharp memories will recall that the presidential debate at Ole Miss came very close to featuring only one candidate.

After hundreds of workers and volunteers spent almost a year of fund-raising and preparation and physical labor on the Oxford campus, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican nominee, phoned in and said he didn’t think he could make it.

With less than 24 hours to go, McCain said he would be able to attend after all and the debate, on Sept. 26, 2008, went off without a hitch.

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What had McCain preoccupied?

Banks and other financial institutions deemed “too big to fail” were imploding and Congress was putting together the bipartisan rescue plan that came to be known as TARP, an acronym for Troubled Asset Relief Program.

Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail.

Last week, McCain was again stalking the halls of the Capitol, and he was pretty livid.

At the time TARP was written, the United States was somewhere in the neighborhood of $9 trillion in debt. (We’re $12.3 trillion in the red today and the debt is growing by $4 billion daily.)

When the need for TARP arose, the nation did not have $500 billion or more gathering dust in a bank account from which Congress could write some checks and save the big institutions from their investments, which were rapidly becoming worthless largely due to federal policies.

Every penny of the bailout money had to be borrowed.

There was hope, but no assurance any of it would ever be recovered.

As most folks know, a lot of the money has been paid back.

Although the TARP legislation was one of those behemoth bills written in haste and passed before anyone could read it, the bill does contain an interesting sentence or two.

One, perhaps tossed in to appease critics, says that any money paid back “shall be used” to pay down the national debt. It’s very clear. The money can be used for no other purpose, not legally anyway.

Of course, “paying down” the debt with TARP money is impossible. Remember that it was borrowed money to begin with, so the best outcome would be for things to come out even.

But forget about that.

McCain and others are upset because some members, bipartisan, are trying to fast-track a “jobs bill” through the Senate today and are saying it won’t cost anything — because they’ll use $30 billion of the “free money” big banks and other financial institutions received from TARP and have repaid.

“It’s an outrage and an insult,” McCain said. “We were assured when the TARP was passed that that money would simply go to stabilize the financial institution in America — and would be spent for no other reason.”

Outrage? Yes.

Insult? Yes.

Revealing? Definitely.

It shows how dishonest Congress can be and how gullible members still think people are.

It doesn’t take an incisive mind or a sharp memory to see it sheer nonsense to say a jobs bill can be passed and that $30 billion of the cost will be not count. It’s like those TV commercials in which a grown-up offers a child a fire truck or a bicycle or a pony and then pulls a bait and switch. Kids know when they’ve been treated unfairly, yet members of Congress think grown-ups will agree with them that repaid TARP cash is “free money” that Congress can spend as if it fell from the skies.

The public’s attention span does shift. But every once in a while something comes along like that special election in Massachusetts. It showed people do pay attention and recognize duplicitous behavior when they see it.

Maybe we need a jobs bill, maybe we don’t. But everyone knows such a bill will cost money, except some members of Congress who seem to live in their own special world.