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Paul Kiesel
Paul Kiesel
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McCain-Palin Economic Plan Lacks Transparency in Wall Street Journal Op-Ed

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John McCain and Sarah Palin gave their opinions on the federal government’s takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, yesterday, in the Wall Street Journal. Here are a few of the pair’s stances: “The bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is another outrageous, but sadly necessary, step for these two institutions [. . .] Treasury has broadly followed the McCain plan, outlined months ago, and gets at the short-term heart of the problem [. . .] [The federal bailout] terminates future lobbying, which was one of the primary contributors to this great debacle [. . .] Reforms are necessary now to make mortgage lending and banking organizations more transparent,” (online.wsj.com, 9/9/08).

First, the bailout was necessary and it is unfortunate that it had to occur. Could it have been prevented? Maybe years ago, before deregulation bills laxed lending industry rules, like the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, thus, allowing the lending industry to act like a teenager whose parents were out of town for the weekend… Or several years. Economists, conservative or liberal, will agree on that.

However, when McCain and Palin suggest that the Treasury has “broadly followed the McCain plan, outlined months ago,” is that the same McCain plan that the senator discussed with reporters back in March: “Some Americans bought homes they couldn’t afford, betting that rising prices would make it easier to refinance later at more affordable rates [. . .] Of those 80 million homeowners, only 55 million have a mortgage at all, and 51 million homeowners are doing what is necessary — working a second job, skipping a vacation and managing their budgets to make their payments on time [. . .] it is not the duty of government to bail out and reward those who act irresponsibly, whether they are big banks or small borrowers,” (New York Times, 3/25/08).

I guess March would qualify as months ago. And it does seem like McCain is expressing his economic policies (or laying out “McCain’s plan”) and how he’d react to the mortgage/housing crisis as Commander-in-chief: that a bailout is a non-option, which is made clear when McCain said, “[. . .] what is not necessary is a multibillion dollar bailout for big banks and speculators, as Sens. Clinton and Obama have proposed. There is a tendency for liberals to seek big government programs that sock it to American taxpayers while failing to solve the very real problems we face.” But, it doesn’t appear that the Treasury department is using “the McCain plan,” as Palin and he suggest. The plan the Treasury is following, not to a tee, but more closely than McCain’s, is the plan that both senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama called for the same week that McCain was criticizing homeowners, many of who were suffering from mortgages littered with TILA violations.

As to the lobbyists that McCain attributes as being “one of the primary contributors to this great debacle,” why is it that one of those lobbysists, former Texas senator Phil Gramm (a former lobbyist for UBS), was McCain’s former economic adviser and co-chair, until he was forced to leave McCain’s campaign in July after making some careless remarks? Why would McCain surround himself with Gramm, a long time political ally and personal friend, along with seven other lobbyists, and at least 20 other major McCain fundraisers who have lobbied on behalf of Fannie and Freddie in recent years?

Those seven lobbyists working on the McCain-Palin campaign, courtesy of CNN.com:

• One: Campaign manager Rick Davis is a major telecommunications lobbyist.

• Two: Senior foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann recently faced scrutiny over his foreign lobbying on behalf of the Republic of Georgia, which has been embroiled in a military conflict with Russia.

• Three: Senior adviser Charlie Black was a foreign lobbyist for dictators in Zaire and Angola in the 1980s, fodder for the liberal group MoveOn.org.

One of the group’s recent ads charged, “Charlie Black said he didn’t do anything wrong. John McCain should tell Black he did. Call John McCain and tell him to fire Charlie Black.”

• Four: Frank Donatelli, the Republican National Committee’s liaison to the McCain campaign, has had clients including Exxon Mobil.

• Five: Economic adviser Nancy Pfotenhauer has lobbied for corporate giants like Koch Industries.

“Both John McCain and Sarah Palin have challenged special interests, challenged their own party. That’s the test of courage,” Pfotenhauer has said.

• The final two lobbyists are McCain’s congressional liaison, John Green, and national finance Co-chairman Wayne Berman. They both lobbied for Fannie Mae, the troubled mortgage giant.

So it’s more than likely that the “lobbyists” McCain refers to as enablers in this mortgage crisis aren’t leaving the political landscape anytime soon, especially if McCain becomes president.

Finally, in regards to McCain’s and Palin’s call for reforming the two mortgage giants and providing better oversight to the lending industry as a whole, why is it that Phil Gramm’s name continues to be mentioned as a possible Treasury Secretary in a McCain-Palin administration? Gramm is the author of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act passed in 2000. There is no coincidence that his energy and lending deregulation bill, among several other deregulation bills like Newt Gingrich’s Home Ownership and Equity Protection Act of 1994 (which was written to protect consumers against predatory loans, but it instead helped spark the subprime boom), opened the door for a lot of the problems seen throughout the subprime crisis (i.e. see what happened or is happening at Bear Stearns, Countrywide, IndyMac, WaMu, etc.).

It was through Gramm’s deregulation (as a senator) that helped set the stage for an explosion of banks slicing up subprime mortgages, bundling them with other mortgage slices, to hide the credit risks (and not being transparent about how the mortgages were written as millions of option ARM mortgages violated the Truth in Lending Act), and selling mortgage stew to other investment firms. And as a lobbyist, just as recently as December 31, 2007, Gramm was lobbying for Swiss bankers to help kill the Helping Families Save Their Home and Bankruptcy Act, a bill that would have let bankruptcy judges adjust mortgage terms so American families facing foreclosure could repay their loans and keep their homes.

Is this the reform that McCain potentially plans to bring with him to the White House, if he’s elected? Is this the “promise [to] the American people that our administration will be different?”

People change their minds all the time. Both Democrats and Republicans do this constantly in Congress (McCain was initially against the Bush tax cuts and then favored them; Palin was for the “Bridge to Nowhere” and then, after becoming Governor of Alaska, she wasn’t for it). President Bush has done this, too, as he signed a housing bill in late-July that he adamantly stated a week earlier he would veto. But on the issues brought up in the Wall Street Journal Op-Ed by the two self-proclaimed mavericks, with McCain and Palin calling for reform to the lending industry, more transparency amongst lenders and less future risk of a taxpayer bailout (issues that McCain has said he’s not too sharp on and relies on his economic advisers opinions to make up for his lack of experience, “The issue of economics is not something I’ve understood as well as I should [. . .] I would rely on the circle that I have developed over many years of people like Jack Kemp, Phil Gramm [. . .]”), it seems like there’s just too much old “Washington” and lobbyist baggage to fit on the “Straight Talk Express” plane.

People change all the time, however, as the old adage goes: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. An old maverick is likely the same.