WASHINGTON - The economy is listing. So it must be time to bail. While there is little enthusiasm for government bailouts in general, voters are increasingly demanding immediate government relief as the economy ebbs.
The Fed-engineered bailout of investment banker Bear Stearns and other assistance to financial institutions has further raised expectations. To some, the $30 billion JP Morgan-Bear Stearns deal also raised a fairness issue: Should the government bail out a prestigious investment bank while doing little to address the hardships of Americans facing foreclosures on their homes, or caught in other troubled segments of the economy, such as laid-off factory workers?
Members of Congress, particularly Democrats, will press the issue when they return from their spring break next week. Bailout proposals for homeowners abound, including several measures to get lenders to rework home loans. There are also bills to increase federal regulation over the nation's financial system.
"The big thing about the Bear Stearns bailout — if you want to call it that — is that it kind of opens the doors for other types of bailouts like for homeowners and individuals," said federal budget expert Stanley Collender.
"If the Fed is thinking about the business community, the lending community and the credit markets, then members of Congress are tending to think about individuals," said Collender, with Qorvis Communications, a Washington consulting firm.
All three major presidential candidates gave what their campaigns billed as major speeches on the economy this week.
Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama both called for direct federal intervention to help burdened homeowners. Sen. John McCain, the certain GOP presidential nominee, has called for caution.
Clinton wants a $30 billion fund for states and communities to assist those at risk of foreclosure. Obama is pushing a a $10 billion relief package and a simplification of the tax code to allow more families to claim a mortgage income tax deduction.
McCain said that, while he would evaluate various rescue proposals put forth, it is "not the duty of government to bail out and reward those who act irresponsibly, whether they are big banks or small borrowers." He previously proposed cutting the corporate tax rate to 25 percent from 35 percent and making permanent the Bush administration's first-term tax cuts, cuts he initially opposed.
Budget hawks can only cringe at the raft of possible bailouts and expensive new federal programs that may be coming down the pike.
Controversy still swirls around some earlier big bailouts.
In the 1980s and 1990s, more than 1,000 savings and loan institutions failed, leading to a federal bailout totaling roughly $125 billion.
The 1998 collapse of hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management, amid the Asian financial crisis, rocked Wall Street and prompted the Federal Reserve to help arrange a $3.6 billion private bailout.
In 1975, President Ford first ignored pleas from a struggling New York City for help but later relented with a $7 billion loan package. President Clinton came to Mexico's aid in 1995 after a sharp devaluation of the peso, persuading countries and banks to lend the country $50 billion.
Congress bailed out what was then known as Lockheed Aircraft in 1971 and Chrysler in 1979 with loan guarantees. In 1984, the failing bank Continental Illinois was effectively taken over by the federal government.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Congress quickly authorized $5 billion in cash to help shore up the airline industry and followed up with $10 billion in loan guarantees. It set up a compensation fund for victims of the attacks.
While complaints of unfairness can always be raised, government bailouts can generally be defended when the government's failure to act could have dire consequences on society or the nation's financial system, said William Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to President Clinton and now a senior fellow at Washington's Brookings Institution.
"Sometimes, you have to act in a very broad way, a way that's not very sensitive to the distinction between the innocent and the guilty, in order to bring about a broader public good. And then you sort it out later if you can," Galston said.
Even President Bush seems torn between not interfering with market forces and wanting to keep the financial crisis from deepening.
On March 14, he inveighed against government bailouts. "The temptation of Washington is to say that anything short of a massive government intervention in the housing market amounts to inaction. I strongly disagree with that sentiment," he told the Economic Club of New York. "I believe there ought to be action. But I'm deeply concerned about law and regulation that will make it harder for the markets to recover."
But, a week later, Bush applauded the series of dramatic government interventions undertaken by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, claiming they had "acted swiftly to promote stability in our financial markets at a crucial time." He even thanked Bernanke for "working over the weekend."