DARLENE SUPERVILLE, Associated Press
WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama on Saturday pitched his proposed tax on banks to recover the cost of bailing them out during the financial crisis, saying if they can afford billions more in bonuses, they can pay back the taxpayers, too.
The banks and Republican lawmakers oppose the tax, which Obama announced this week.
"We're going to pass this fee into law," the president said in his weekly radio and Internet address.
Congress must approve the tax and that was not assured, given the immediate opposition from Republicans. Democrats also appeared in jeopardy of losing their 60-vote majority in the Senate, with Democrat Martha Coakley in an unexpectedly close race against Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts to fill the seat held for decades by the late Democrat Edward M. Kennedy.
Brown opposes Obama's bank tax. Obama was heading to Massachusetts on Sunday to campaign for Coakley.
The White House's decision to use the weekly address to speak about the proposed tax instead of the U.S. response to the suffering and devastation caused by the earthquake in Haiti suggested one line of attack Obama would use against Brown on Sunday.
Obama spoke publicly about Haiti on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday; he was to do so again on Saturday.
The proposed 0.15 percent tax would last at least 10 years and generate about $90 billion over the decade, according to administration estimates. It would apply to about 50 of the nation's biggest banks, those with more than $50 billion in assets, and include many institutions that accepted no money from the $700 financial industry bailout.
Obama said that although the banks were facing a "crisis of their own creation," the "distasteful but necessary" taxpayer-funded bailout prevented an "even greater calamity for the country."
Most of the banks have returned the money they borrowed, and Obama said that was "good news."
"But as far as I'm concerned, it's not good enough," he said. "We want the taxpayers' money back, and we're going to collect every dime."
Six of the biggest U.S. banks are on track to pay $150 billion in total executive compensation for 2009, slightly less than the record $164 billion in 2007 before the financial crisis struck, according to the New York state comptroller's office.
Obama challenged those who say banks can't afford the tax without passing the costs on to shareholders and customers.
"That's hard to believe when there are reports that Wall Street is going to hand out more money in bonuses and compensation just this year than the cost of this fee over the next 10 years," he said. "If the big financial firms can afford massive bonuses, they can afford to pay back the American people."
Remarks of President Barack Obama
As Prepared for Delivery
January 16, 2010
Over the past two years, more than seven million Americans have lost their jobs. Countless businesses have been forced to shut their doors. Few families have escaped the pain of this terrible recession. Rarely does a day go by that I do not hear from folks who are hurting. That is why we have pushed so hard to rebuild this economy.
But even as we work tirelessly to dig our way out of this hole, it is important that we address what led us into such a deep mess in the first place. Much of the turmoil of this recession was caused by the irresponsibility of banks and financial institutions on Wall Street. These financial firms took huge, reckless risks in pursuit of short-term profits and soaring bonuses. They gambled with borrowed money, without enough oversight or regard for the consequences. And when they lost, they lost big. Little more than a year ago, many of the largest and oldest financial firms in the world teetered on the brink of collapse, overwhelmed by the consequences of their irresponsible decisions. This financial crisis nearly pulled the entire economy into a second Great Depression.
As a result, the American people - struggling in their own right - were placed in a deeply unfair and unsatisfying position. Even though these financial firms were largely facing a crisis of their own creation, their failure could have led to an even greater calamity for the country. That is why the previous administration started a program - the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP - to provide these financial institutions with funds to survive the turmoil they helped unleash. It was a distasteful but necessary thing to do.
Many originally feared that most of the $700 billion in TARP money would be lost. But when my administration came into office, we put in place rigorous rules for accountability and transparency, which cut the cost of the bailout dramatically. We have now recovered most of the money we provided to the banks. That's good news, but as far as I'm concerned, it's not good enough. We want the taxpayers' money back, and we're going to collect every dime.
That is why, this week, I proposed a new fee on major financial firms to compensate the American people for the extraordinary assistance they provided to the financial industry. And the fee would be in place until the American taxpayer is made whole. Only the largest financial firms with more than $50 billion in assets will be affected, not community banks. And the bigger the firm - and the more debt it holds - the larger the fee. Because we are not only going to recover our money and help close our deficits; we are going to attack some of the banking practices that led to the crisis.
That's important. The fact is, financial firms play an essential role in our economy. They provide capital and credit to families purchasing homes, students attending college, businesses looking to start up or expand. This is critical to our recovery. That is why our goal with this fee - and with the common-sense financial reforms we seek - is not to punish the financial industry. Our goal is to prevent the abuse and excess that nearly led to its collapse. Our goal is to promote fair dealings while punishing those who game the system; to encourage sustained growth while discouraging the speculative bubbles that inevitably burst. Ultimately, that is in the shared interest of the financial industry and the American people.
Of course, I would like the banks to embrace this sense of mutual responsibility. So far, though, they have ferociously fought financial reform. The industry has even joined forces with the opposition party to launch a massive lobbying campaign against common-sense rules to protect consumers and prevent another crisis.
Now, like clockwork, the banks and politicians who curry their favor are already trying to stop this fee from going into effect. The very same firms reaping billions of dollars in profits, and reportedly handing out more money in bonuses and compensation than ever before in history, are now pleading poverty. It's a sight to see.
Those who oppose this fee say the banks can't afford to pay back the American people without passing on the costs to their shareholders and customers. But that's hard to believe when there are reports that Wall Street is going to hand out more money in bonuses and compensation just this year than the cost of this fee over the next ten years. If the big financial firms can afford massive bonuses, they can afford to pay back the American people.
Those who oppose this fee have also had the audacity to suggest that it is somehow unfair. That because these firms have already returned what they borrowed directly, their obligation is fulfilled. But this willfully ignores the fact that the entire industry benefited not only from the bailout, but from the assistance extended to AIG and homeowners, and from the many unprecedented emergency actions taken by the Federal Reserve, the FDIC, and others to prevent a financial collapse. And it ignores a far greater unfairness: sticking the American taxpayer with the bill.
That is unacceptable to me, and to the American people. We're not going to let Wall Street take the money and run. We're going to pass this fee into law. And I'm going to continue to work with Congress on common-sense financial reforms to protect people and the economy from the kind of costly and painful crisis we've just been through. Because after a very tough two years, after a crisis that has caused so much havoc, if there is one lesson that we can learn, it's this: we cannot return to business as usual.
Thank you very much.