Former Republican Senate leader Bob Dole, a man of uncommon candor, once said of his Senate colleagues, on both sides of the aisle, “We like to make tough speeches, but we don’t like to make tough choices.”
I can only hope that Dole was watching — as I was from the Senate press gallery — on Wednesday night, less than five weeks before a national election, when U.S. senators faced a tough, unpleasant and politically unrewarding choice of voting for an overwhelmingly unpopular $700 billion bailout — oops, make that rescue — intended to keep the nation’s financial system from imminent collapse.
On a 74-25 vote, the Senate did the difficult and painful — rather than the easy and popular — by backing the bailout. I was personally impressed by senators like Republican John Sununu of New Hampshire, already facing an uphill re-election fight against popular former Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, who knowingly put their own political futures at risk by voting for the bailout.
Just before the big vote, with some 95 senators sitting in their assigned seats on the hushed Senate floor, every ear in the chamber heard the insistent ringing of a cell-phone. The phone belonged to the embarrassed Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who was obviously being needled for this interruption by his Senate seatmate, Independent Democrat Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. Nelson quickly retreated to the Senate cloakroom to take the call.
After the vote, Lieberman told me what he had said to Nelson when the latter’s phone pierced the moment: “If that’s (America’s most successful investor and Nebraska resident) Warren Buffett, I want to know what he’s telling you.”
Nelson later told me that it was not Buffett calling but instead his daughter, Sarah, who was watching the Senate drama on C-SPAN in her California home and just wanted to tell her dad how much she liked the tie he was wearing.
There’s an old Washington political maxim that holds that nobody ever got into political trouble by voting against a bill that passed or by voting in favor of a bill that did not pass. The argument being: You can always explain that your intention was to improve the legislation that did pass or that you wanted more to improve glaring shortcomings in the bill the majority favored. On an October night in a crucial election year, 74 senators ignored that maxim and voted for a bill that could — shortly — get some of them into big political trouble.
There is enormous blame to go around for the pain and fear millions of American families are enduring because of the greed, dishonesty and arrogance of powerful individuals mostly in the financial world. At the very least, these lawmakers owe their fellow citizens a contrite, public apology.
But let us pay proper credit to at least a few among us who did their best to warn America against the fateful. When Congress voted in 1999 to repeal the New Deal law that guaranteed the security of commercial bank deposits but which regulated banks by limiting their ability to engage in speculation, the dean of the House, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., warned the House not to do it: “I just want to remind my colleagues about what happened the last time (the Congress) deregulated the savings and loans. It wound up imposing upon the taxpayers of this nation about a $500 billion liability. That is what it cost to clean up that mess. … Taxpayers are going to be called upon to cure the failures we are creating tonight, and it is going to cost a lot of money, and it is coming. … You are going to find out they are too big to fail, so the Fed is going to be in and other federal agencies are going to be in to bail them out. Just expect that.”
Thank you, John Dingell.
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.