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Tuesday, January 22 , 2019, 11:20 am | Fair 60º


Mark Shields: Whatever Happened to Accountability?

Bush bails out Wall Street at the expense of needy children's health care.

Just about a year ago, President Bush, presiding over the five largest federal deficits in U.S. history, finally vetoed the very first spending bill in his two White House terms. His administration argued that this veto was necessary because we did not have the money — an extra $30 billion over five years — even though the legislation provided that the funds would come from a dedicated increase in the cigarette tax.

Mark Shields
Mark Shields
And what was the bill that Bush felt compelled to veto? It was the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, passed by large, bipartisan majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, which would have enabled the states to provide medical care to children in 8 million low-income families.

The United States did not have the money then to insure poor kids, but — in the last eight months alone — our federal government, in a frenzied effort to contain the financial crisis, has as of today committed just about $7 trillion. One trillion, I have to keep reminding myself, is 1,000 billion.

To give you some idea of what $7 trillion could pay for, the costs in constant dollars of World Wars I and II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined totaled, according to the Library of Congress, under $5.4 trillion. The Marshall Plan, which in three short years after World War II restored the devastated economies of 16 European nations, cost $115 billion in constant dollars, while the Louisiana Purchase — from which all or part of 15 U.S. states were created — would today carry a price tag of $217 billion.

This whole story makes me angrier by the minute. Bush and his crowd have sermonized endlessly about the urgency of accountability. Bush repeated that “accountability is critically important,” that “accountability is the cornerstone of reform.” On Main Street, the public school, its principal, all its teachers and every student must be held accountable. But on Wall Street — where we knew these guys were terminally greedy and we now find out, painfully, that they are apparently dumber than a bag of hammers — nobody is accountable for anything!

These titans of the economic world — who drove the getaway cars while bandits in Brioni suits robbed millions of American families of their dreams, their life savings and their peace of mind — now plead ignorance. The celebrated boards of directors who were photographed in the Hamptons and profiled in Forbes or Fortune now all sound exactly like the piano player in the house of ill repute — the one who never had any idea what was going on upstairs or in the back room.

These people have no shame. When the first bailout checks came in the front door from the U.S. Treasury, too often their reaction was to send it out the back door to pay dividends or bonuses or to buy a healthy and profitable bank.

Does nobody on Wall Street or in the Bush administration remember the leadership example of Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca, who before seeking a federal loan guarantee of $1.5 billion in the fall of 1979 first negotiated $2 billion in concessions from the company’s dealers, suppliers, union and nonunion employees, and cut his own salary to $1 a year? And that Iacocca and Chrysler paid that federal loan back seven years early?

Instead, the checks are written on the Treasury to individuals who neither are asked nor who offer to make any sacrifice and on whom no conditions or obligations are imposed. This is the abdication of public and private leadership and the abandonment of any pretense of accountability.

Do we want to live in a country that cannot afford $6 billion a year for five years to cover uninsured children in 8 million poor, working families but can somehow find $7 trillion — with no strings attached and no questions asked — to rescue the captains of Wall Street?

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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