George Bush has strong views on marriage. He is an ardent proponent of the marriage between the financial sector and the federal government, but he apparently finds intolerable a similar union involving the auto industry.
It’s difficult to pin down exactly why the very lame duck Bush is resisting calls for a bailout of Detroit. There were reports, subsequently denied, that he was using his opposition as a bargaining chip to get Congress to go along with his desire for a free trade agreement with Colombia, whose right-wing government is Bush’s only significant ally in Latin America.
Then there’s the theory that he does not want to assist an industry that is heavily unionized and that supposedly brought on its own troubles by giving in to the wage and benefit demands of those unions over the years. And there’s the notion that Bush is trying to reestablish his credentials as a free marketeer, but that’s hard to believe at a time when his administration is pouring seemingly endless taxpayer funds into the likes of AIG.
The explicit statements made by Administration representatives about the reasons for the resistance are perhaps the most preposterous. White House spokesperson Dana Perino suggested that the problem was that Congress had not provided explicit authority to assist industries other than banks. Since when does the Bush Administration worry about explicit Congressional authority in deciding what it can and cannot do? Take the bailout itself. Congress was steamrolled into approving a $700 billion plan under which the federal government would buy up “troubled” assets from banks. That plan was put on the back burner by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson as he instead embarked on a program—never debated by Congress—to purchase holdings in the banks themselves. And isn’t it ridiculous to cite a lack of Congressional approval as a reason for not doing something being heavily advocated by leaders of Congress?
Until this mystery is solved, perhaps the best course of action for the automakers is to simply change their identity. Neel Kashkari, the interim assistant secretary at Treasury who is running the bailout, said in a speech on Monday: “We have allocated sufficient capital, $250 billion, so that all qualifying banks, potentially thousands, can participate. Therefore, it is important to note that Treasury will not implement this program on a first-come-first-served basis; there is enough capital allocated for all qualifying institutions.”
With the bailout window wide open for bank, why can’t the automakers follow the lead of investment houses Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs—as well as, more recently, American Express—and redefine themselves as bank holding companies (with cars as a sideline)? GMAC, the financing arm of General Motors that is co-owned by Cerberus Capital, is already moving in that direction. The rest of Detroit should follow suit. After all, the Big Three are not making any money trying to sell cars in the current economic situation; perhaps they will have more luck making loans. And, given the reluctance of real banks to lend, they should have an open field.