On Saturday morning, I was scheduled to interview National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) about the increasingly upbeat attitude of his party on the congressional elections this fall. But that had to wait. Since Cole was one of the Republican House Members who was briefed on the proposed record-high bailout of U.S. financial institutions 24 hours before, a discussion of how he and his colleagues reacted to Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke took priority.
“I don’t know the details — none of us do,” said Cole of the still-to-be-outlined proposal that the Financial Times has suggested will be “the most extensive peacetime expansion of government in the financial system since the Great Depression.” The Oklahoma lawmaker also said that “with talk of a price tag on it of half-a-trillion to $750 billion, I feel I may soon be casting the most consequential vote of my career in Congress. So that’s why I’m spending the weekend talking about the issue of finance with people I know in and outside of Congress.”
Cole laid out where he and his fellow conservative Republicans in Congress are at this point on “the big package. ” On one hand, he said, small government Republicans “don’t like the idea of government bailing people out. We like the marketplace to run its natural course. On the other hand, the loss of people’s savings and the severity of the situation mean we may have to look at a different approach. So let’s wait for the details, which are being worked out this weekend.”
This “wait-and-call-me-back” attitude of Cole and his Republican colleagues differs from that of some conservatives outside of Congress who have voiced opinions on the Administration package. On his nationally-syndicated radio program Saturday (September 20), Michael Reagan was quoting as saying that Democrats such as [House Banking Committee Chairman] Barney Frank and [Senate Banking Committee Chairman] Christopher Dodd are “robbing” the American people and that “Republicans in the House and Senate had been tapped to drive the getaway car.” That same day, the Washington Post quoted former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as saying: “. . [W]hat you now have is the Washington interests. . . .dominating the administration. We now have launched big government Republicanism. If we saw France do this, Italy do this, we would have thought it was crazy. We would have had pious speeches about the folly of bureaucrats running businesses.”
For his part, Cole did concede that “there was a lot of anger” among Republicans on Capitol Hill because, during the previous week, “[n]o one from the Administration was coming to talk to us. So we appreciate the conference call yesterday and that Secretary Paulson and Chairman Bernanke took questions. Now let’s see what the details are.”
The conservatives’ point man in Congress during the upcoming discussions between the Administration and Capitol Hill is likely to be Rep. Spencer Bacchus (R-Ala.), the ranking Republican on the House Banking and Financial Services Committee. Eight-termer Bacchus, a leader in restructuring the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), “sounds like a courtly country lawyer, but, as you know, he’s a lot more than that,” Cole said. Cole also suggested that Reps. Paul Ryan (Wis.) [ranking House Budget Committee Member] and Jeb Hensarling (Texas) [House Republican Study Committee Chairman] are Republicans “you should keep an eye on. They will ask all the right questions regarding the use of tax dollars and [the Republican Conference] will listen to them.”
Could the current financial crisis keep Congress in session until mid-October, as it was during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 when lawmakers had about three weeks to campaign in the fall, I asked Cole? “It’s certainly a possibility,” he replied, “The Democrats would like to get out of town, all right, so voters won’t be reminded of who’s in charge here. While I would like the time to campaign, I prefer that we take time to make a good decision. So if we have to stay here, we’ll stay here.”
One thing that could keep lawmakers in session long, Cole warned, is if “Nancy Pelosi insists on a second stimulus package or a Christmas tree with lots of presents under it [omnibus spending legislation].” Already Speaker Pelosi has suggested a stimulus package that would include assistance for the ailing auto industry, extended unemployment insurance and healthcare assistance, and infrastructure investment. Such a package, said Cole, would surely lead to major Republican opposition because “it goes beyond what is appropriate.”