Beltway peer pressure

This is not the column I had planned to write. Flying back from a truncated fishing trip to Montana on Sunday, I decided that we have all heard and read enough about the bailout to  exhaust the subject.

Then I read through the Washington papers that had been piling up while I was out of town and was struck by the disconnect between the way the Washington establishment sees the world beyond the Beltway and the world that actually exists in real America.

When the crisis hit, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson informed Congress that the world would come to an end unless America’s taxpayers coughed up $700 billion to save it. His view of what was needed and the consequences of refusing to provide it were accepted by virtually everyone in the political and public policy community. Oh, there were arguments about the cost of the bailout and there were those who questioned the wisdom of giving Paulson and his successors at Treasury the power to act unilaterally and without fear of review to stave off future problems. But these quibbles didn’t really question the need for what President Bush and his Treasury secretary were demanding of Congress.

In fact, Paulson’s demands, combined with administration and financial establishment warnings that a failure to act quickly would lead to an economic collapse, set the narrative for the ensuing debate. Those who refused to accept the dire scenario outlined by administration spokesmen and congressional leaders were dismissed as too ideological to be given much attention or too willing to pander to economically ignorant and shortsighted voters who just couldn’t understand what obviously needed to be done. Republican Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut, for example, told the dissenters to act like adults. Others called them arrogant.

Once this narrative was set, there weren’t really two sides to the debate here in Washington. There were those who wanted to do the “responsible” thing and there were those who were, well, “irresponsible.” There was no real debate over the wisdom of the Bush/Paulson solution and only passing attention to those who said that even if one accepted the premise that “something” needed to be done, massive nationalization might not be the way to go.

After the votes were taken, The Washington Post expressed shock that some 83 percent of retiring Republicans voted for the bailout while no GOP freshmen did so. To the Post this was evidence not that elected representatives sometimes actually listen to their constituents, but that the Republican freshmen are too ideologically oriented to deal with reality. It never even occurred to the Post  writer that perhaps the retiring members have as a group been in Washington so long that even had they been facing reelection the voters mattered less to them than the demands of the Washington establishment.

Establishment praise was restricted to those who never or no longer had to pay attention to the people they supposedly represent, including members from safe districts who vote as they please without fear of losing their jobs for betraying the very folks who send them here.

Retiring Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia, for example, who has made a career of parroting the views of The Washington Post’s editorial writers, was so offended that former Gov. Jim Gilmore (who is running to succeed him) wouldn’t endorse the bailout that he announced that he, therefore, couldn’t support Gilmore.
Interestingly, the bailout debate and the potential consequences of acting or not acting were more thoughtful outside the Beltway. Discussions in a Wolf Creek, Mont., bar made more sense than the televised floor debates or the opinion pages of Washington’s papers.

They reflected the 3-to-1 ratio of the public opposed to the bailout, and were far more knowledgeable than Congress about the potential moral and economic costs.

Once it passed, of course, those same experts who warned that if it failed, we would find ourselves in dire economic straits told us the bailout itself wouldn’t right the economic ship, but that Congress and the taxpayer averted something worse. If taxpayers don’t see any improvement and conclude that their representatives were hoodwinked into using their tax dollars to bail out their buddies, the voters may rightly insist that those they elect in the future actually represent them.

If that happens, future Congresses will feature fewer John Warners and more folks like the freshmen who listened not to the experts, but to the voters back home.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at