THE BLOG
10/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Gut Check Time: Will Congress Stand up to Wall Street?

It's gut check time.

The attempt by Treasury Secretary Paulson to put a gun to the head of Congress and terrify them into forking over a $700 billion blank check to the Bush administration in 48 hours has failed. Now what?

Most Americans would just as soon the Masters of the Universe were allowed to sink in their own folly. They had the party; let them clean up the mess. But, looking at sinking housing values and shaken retirement accounts, most Americans know something has to get done.

Banks and investment houses carry weapons of financial mass destruction. Last week, they looked into the abyss. If nothing is done, the chances for a deep and long depression are very great. So stocks skied around the world when Paulson announced his support for a massive bailout of Wall Street. And stocks and the dollar plummeted, and oil and gold soared when it became clear on Monday that the Congress wouldn't simply salute and go along. Doing nothing is not an option.

Leaders from unions, consumer and citizen groups have weighed in, demanding strict conditions on any bailout. On Monday, Sen. Chris Dodd put forth a draft bill that called for an independent board to run the bailout, required that taxpayers get partial ownership in any firm bailed out, and mandated steps to forestall foreclosures and work out mortgages, helping to keep people in their homes. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi demands a kickstart for the real economy - extension of unemployment benefits, aid to states and localities, investment in green jobs and basic infrastructure. (But at only $50 billion, a relative pittance for the real economy compared to the sums demanded to rescue Wall Street). Rep. Barney Frank insists on limits on the compensation of executives of any firm that gets bailed out. Together, these conditions begin to make some sense out of a bad fix.

Initially, Bush and Paulson, backed by the slavish Republican leadership in Congress, resisted, calling for the bill to remain "simple and clear." Republican leaders denounced help for homeowners and Main Street as "political" and "partisan" as opposed to bailing out the Master's of the Universe which somehow is an emergency above politics.

But Paulson is a deal maker. As his testimony indicated today, he'll trade nominal oversight and a few bridges for the $700 billion. As someone who made half a billion on Wall Street, however, he's been unbending on limits on pay for his friends, on providing taxpayers with an equity stake in the firms that are helped, and on measures to force work outs of mortgages and a freeze on foreclosures. And he'll resist any detailed measures to regulate Wall Street to insure this doesn't happen again. For all the talk of bipartisan accord, this will be a face off. Democrats will have to stare him down.

With the financial markets reeling, who will blink first? Will the Democratic leadership insist on common sense? Will Paulson be able to panic Congress into folding? Will the financial firm lobbyists now swarming the Capitol like a plague of locusts be able to rent the votes they need?

The decisions will be made over the next few days. If you want to make your voice heard, go here to contact your legislator, or to get more information.

But this staggering bailout - as perilous and costly as it will be -is only a stop gap. Broader lessons need to be drawn; larger and more permanent reforms are needed. One thing should be clear: the conservative era is over. The theology of market fundamentalism has proven to be a false idol once more. As Joseph Stiglitz has argued, the collapse of Wall Street is to the market fundamentalists what the fall of the Berlin Wall was to communism. It's over. The right has proved once more that it cannot be trusted to run the government it scorns. A trillion dollar debacle in Iraq. A trillion dollar bust on Wall Street. Hundreds of billions pocketed by Big Pharma and Big Oil. It is time for a reckoning.