Spluttering coffers

Let’s start by writing a list: Bear Stearns ($30 billion), Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac ($200 billion or more), AIG ($85 billion). Sooner or later this is going to add up to serious money.

Actually, of course, it is already very serious money indeed. And it is casting a long shadow that falls not just over the next several months, but over years to come, and over Congresses yet unelected.

All over Washington, trade associations and others are in a state of shock about it — and incipient dismay. For they have been readying their agendas for the 111th Congress.

Legislation dwindled in the final year and waning months of the Bush administration. The president is a conservative Republican with low approval ratings, opposed by a Democratic Congress, also with low approval ratings. Both have been heading toward a date certain on which he is heading out the door and the majority party is likely to tighten its grip on Capitol Hill.

Such circumstances make for gridlock and dwindling legislative activity.

The flip-side of waiting for a new administration and Congress, however, is the presumption that they will be hyperactive when they arrive. They are expected to bound into office with vigor and legislative purpose, keen as mustard to impress the nation with their reforming and improving zeal.

But a not-so-funny thing has happened on the way to 2009. Suddenly, the financial pillars of the nation were shaken, and the federal government, wisely or not, has committed billions of dollars to shoring them up. This is a rich nation, but its pockets are not bottomless, its spending has ballooned and its deficit is already enormous.

So lobbyists and pressure groups are looking in shock at the sudden drawdown of the nation’s treasure. They counted on their causes securing a goodly portion of what they hoped would be a generous year or two of federal largesse.

But elected officials will have less money to go around. Taxpayers have been put on the hook for an additional $315 billion just to cover the items listed above, and that is nothing like a complete tally. With such outgoings, lawmakers are going to have to do triage on their wish lists.

Advocacy groups are going to have to try even harder to get their issues to the top of the agenda. There will be plenty of legislative activity in the first year of the new Congress and administration, but the jockeying for position on the issues will be even more frantic than expected.