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Congress's financial rescue plan is first step

Democrats will use credit-crisis hearings this month as a springboard for more regulation next year.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 4, 2008

Bailout passed: Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House Democratic leadersgathered Friday after the House approved a reworked $700 billionfinancial-rescue plan.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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It's just the beginning.

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That's the message – from both sides of the aisle – after the House approved a historic $700 billion financial-rescue package.

While the initiative now shifts to the Treasury Department, armed with vast new powers to relieve stricken financial markets, Congress is launching its own, parallel oversight operation to ensure transparency and accountability in how these powers are used. It also has to meet vast new expectations on government's capacity to restore markets – and the lives of constituents – battered by the crisis.

Beginning next week, Congress is also starting a series of hearings and investigations – just weeks before national elections – to identify who is to blame for the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Democratic lawmakers want to use them as a springboard for rapid legislation next session to reregulate financial markets.

"Those who most opposed government intervention in the economy for much of the past two decades were so successful in keeping the government away from regulating activities that should have been regulated, that the consequence is now a greater degree of intervention by the government in the economy," said Democratic Rep. Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, after Friday's vote.

For now, the focus is on the Bush administration, which has three months to show that the powers it said were essential can make a difference.

The new law gives the Treasury secretary other options, such as relying on insurance or loans to relieve the crisis. But over two weeks of congressional testimony and negotiations, Secretary Henry Paulson made the case that the key element in the plan is the power to buy up "troubled assets."

Step One is setting up a process for buying "toxic," illiquid assets, such as mortgage-backed securities, that clogged credit markets and helped drive giant financial institutions in the US and around the world toward bankruptcy.

"What we're going to see happen is the process of the auctions put into place to buy the securities from the banks. They will hire private companies to do that for them, because there isn't the capacity inside Treasury and they don't want to build one up. It can be managed by a couple of vendors," says Peter Morici, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Business and former chief economist of the US International Trade Commission.

But the process itself of sorting out assets in the new Troubled Assets Relief Program or TARP will be daunting, he adds. "Not all mortgage-backed securities have the same risk or potential default rate inside of these bonds. The real problem is telling which assets are alike so you can have a bidding process and set a price."

House leaders, rebuffed on Monday by members on both sides of the aisle, needed 12 votes for victory in a revote on Friday. They easily surpassed that to win by a vote of 263 to 171.

What changed is that members, swamped by calls from angry voters who opposed the rescue, this week began hearing from car dealers, small business owners, governors, and mayors who were worried about the impact of the credit crunch.