At this point, it's hard to decide whether the continuing spectacle that is the Congress of the United States is more of a tragedy or comedy. I vote for a tragicomedy. First the House of Representatives defeated the administration's original plan to have the government step in and stop the economic meltdown by acquiring troubled assets that were bringing down one key financial institution after another.
The vote was 228 to 205 to let the economy drift further into paralysis or let it go down the tubes, whichever comes first. Banks, investment houses, insurers, all had started to topple like dominoes in a growing row and the House's response was to let 'em.
Refusing to lead, follow or get out of the way, the House preferred to do nothing, and do it not particularly well. But not before indulging in the requisite quotient of what Huey Long used to call high popalorum and low popahirum. Any populist frenzy demands a lot of rousing speeches about the evils of Wall Street and high finance in general. I'd have been content if the speaker of the House and its minority leader had just known how to count, mainly votes. Instead, they brought a vital proposal to the floor without being sure they had enough support to pass it. Ostensibly they were for it. Imagine the damage they could have done if they'd been against it.
In one of its periodic rages the American people, to judge by the tidal wave of angry letters, e-mails, wires and phone calls that flooded Congress, were mad as hell and determined to take it out on themselves. So the well-named People's House, in a profile in cowardice that should go down in history way down stood back and let them. The House's performance that day, or rather non-performance, would have made Herbert Hoover look like a wild-eyed activist.
To quote the immortal Mencken, "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." Which was what happened as soon as the vote in the House was tallied. By the end of the day, the stock market had fallen almost 800 points, and the credit that the economy runs on went from being only frozen to evaporating into thin air. A kind of disastrous multiplier effect began to take effect as the Panic of '08 gained even more steam: first confidence was lost in the financial system, then in the political one.
At that perilous point, it began to occur to all those mad-as-hell e-mailers that they might have been a tad hasty as they watched the value of their 401(k)s shrink, and began to think about where their next house/car/college/business loan was going to come from.
The largely fictive distinction between Wall Street (Boo!) and Main Street (Hurrah!) dissolved as it dawned on folks that this is one economy. Dividing the two may make good campaign rhetoric, but not much sense.
After bingeing on anger, juiced up with the requisite amount of ideology, The People began to sober up. The consequences of the House's irresponsibility began to dawn. You could tell the tide had shifted when what was once routinely labeled a bailout began to be called, just as routinely, a rescue. There's a lot in a name, at least when it comes to garnering votes.
As I write, a second attempt was under way to pass basically the same bill, maybe improved a little (for example, by expanding federal insurance for bank deposits in order to raise capital and calm nerves) and disimproved a lot (by adding oodles of pork and tax cuts.) Doubtless on the theory that the House would cease holding the American economy hostage if the ransom were high enough.
With both presidential candidates on board, the Senate rode to the rescue 74 to 25. Then it was on to the House. Again. There was hope that this time the speaker would refrain from delivering a partisan provocation before the vote in her chamber, and a decisive number of Republican congressmen would refrain from being provoked by it. The second time would surely prove the charm. If not, then the third. For as Winston Churchill once said, Americans can be relied on to do the right thing after exhausting all other options.