Is credit crisis truly so dire, lawmakers ask

Many in Congress, citing secrecy surrounding bailout talks, seek outside counsel.

SOURCE: Department of the Treasury/AP

Members of Congress have been on the receiving end of thousands of calls from constituents angry about what they've heard of a "bailout" of Wall Street.

But many lawmakers have been busy making phone calls of their own – to bankers, business people, and other constituents in their states and home districts – to check up on Bush administration claims about the dire need for quick action to bail out troubled banks and other financial institutions.

Call it a reality check, or at least a quest for additional information beyond what lawmakers are hearing from Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke.

The reason for their skepticism? Many members on both sides of the aisle say they resent the speed and secrecy of the negotiations, aimed at setting the terms of any federal bailout of strapped financial institutions mired in bad mortgage-related debt. They wanted hearings with witnesses who can offer alternatives to the Bush administration's views, and they wonder if they're going to be pressured, given predictions of inevitable and dire outcomes, to take a vote they will regret.

"One of the dramatic things that's happening in the Senate is that when a big issue occurs, there's very little discussion in the normal sense of a congressional discussion – hearings, expert testimony including economists who are not tied to Wall Street, giving their opinion in open public meetings," says Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama.

A handful of negotiators "take information in private and they announce decisions that have never been publicly aired. I don't think it's good," he adds.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) of Ohio, an ideological bookend to Senator Sessions on most issues, says he regularly calls a group of 25 local bankers, executives of biggest regional banks, and asks for their ideas on what to do.

On the House side, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D) of Ohio challenged Democratic leaders to empower committees to plunge into hearings on the Bush administration's proposals.

"This bill is big. It's a whale. And where are our committees? They're locked down, in my opinion," she says. A decision has been made to limit discussion to just the Paulson-Bush proposal, she said.

"I talked to my bankers back home and they said: You should have one or more alternatives to consider up there. Why aren't you doing that?"

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