The latest furor over the AIG bonuses has revealed the 111th Congress for what it is — the Keystone Kops of the 21st century. Take Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee.
After the AIG bonuses came to light last week, the good senator said he had no idea where the amendment to the stimulus bill that contained language permitting the bonuses came from. A short time later, when the first explanation failed to fly, he admitted actually having a hand in placing the language in the final version of the legislation.
But he said he was utterly clueless that the language, which was given to him by the administration’s financial brainiacs (read Treasury Secretary Geithner, and others), would have the effect of allowing AIG employees to obtain bonuses to which they were contractually entitled. Like police inspector Claude Raines in Casablanca confronting Humphrey Bogart in his casino, Dodd was “shocked and amazed” something like this would go on.
Where does this leave us? Is the chairman of the banking committee so dumb when it comes to legislative language that he doesn’t know what words mean?
Or is he simply lying to avoid being held responsible for inserting language in the stimulus bill that allowed employees of one of his major campaign benefactors (AIG) to reap tens of millions of dollars in bonuses at taxpayer expense? Perhaps he has lost control of his staff, who inserted the language and just neglected to let their boss know.
None of these scenarios reflects particularly well on the silver-maned Connecticut senator, who has served in that body since January 1981. And none of it reflects well on the 60 senators who, along with Dodd, voted “aye” on the final stimulus bill that contained the bonus-permitting language. The 246 House members who similarly supported the offending legislation hardly look more perceptive.
Subsequently, House and Senate members have been floundering around like kindergartners trying to avoid being found out after their teacher found a frog in her purse. In the latest and perhaps most ridiculous effort to atone for their mistake in passing the bonus language they now denounce, the Congress is going to tax AIG employees receiving the bonuses to the extent of the bonuses themselves. This is a constitutionally risky maneuver, but there is actually a much easier — and legally sound — way to recoup the AIG bonus money for the American taxpayers.
The Congress should simply assess those senators and representatives who voted for the legislation a pro rata share of the $165 million in questionable bonuses. This actually would cause little hurt to many of those members of Congress who voted in favor of AIG, since they rank among the richest members. For example, by Sen. John Kerry’s own estimates, his net worth is around $231 million (Forbes magazine puts his wealth a bit higher — at $1 billion). He is considered the wealthiest member of the Congress and is a champion of “fairness,” so paying perhaps an even larger share of the bonuses than whatever his pro rata share would be ($165 million divided by 306, which is the total number of representatives and senators voting for the measure) should sit well with him. And even though Sen. Dodd is not among the wealthiest of the senators, his recent financial disclosure forms include a large number of assets he values in excess of $100,000, and several worth as much as $250,000 each.
Such a self-effacing move by the Congress might spur former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson — whose net worth was estimated at $700 million when he became the top dog at the Treasury in 2006 — to kick in a fair share. Even his successor, the hapless Geithner, whose net worth pales in comparison (topping out at just $1.7 million), might thus be shamed into contributing his fair share. Perhaps President Barack Obama who, like Sen. Dodd, was “shocked and amazed” when the AIG bonuses came to light, and who has reaped millions from the sales of his books, would feel moved to pay his fair share.
And who knows — if the House and Senate were to take such a benevolent step, their poll numbers, which have dipped recently into the single digits, might skyrocket into double digits once agai