Band of Dems blasts Geithner plan

WASHINGTON– Appearing before a House panel on Thursday, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner made his best pitch for legislation granting the White House broad new powers to seize Wall Street firms when their collapse might torpedo others in the industry. It didn’t go so well.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (WDCpix)
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (WDCpix)

A number of Democrats on the House Financial Services Committee unfurled a laundry list of charges against the proposal, including the prominent concern that the bill would empower the president — and future presidents –with unlimited bailout authority to prop up “too-big-to-fail” institutions at the expense of taxpayers.

“Mr. Secretary, I’m not a man that fears this administration or you,” Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa.) told Geithner. “But I do fear the accumulation of power exercised by someone in the future that can be extraordinary.”

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) echoed those concerns, arguing that the bill represents “the most unprecedented transfer of power to the executive branch to make decisions about both spending and taxes in history — all without congressional approval.”

The tone of the comments could foreshadow a tough road ahead, not only for the White House, but for Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who introduced legislation this week that grants the Treasury’s request to broaden the president’s “resolution authority.” The bill is one of the final pieces of the finance-reform puzzle that Frank has been putting together all year. But by conceding most of the administration’s requests, the Massachusetts Democrat — who asked no questions of Geithner Thursday — has riled others on his panel, who want to see more taxpayer protections in the bill.

Frank’s proposal would create an oversight commission to monitor and regulate Wall Street’s investment houses and other non-bank institutions to ensure that they’re on solid footing. Federal regulators could, for example, force companies to increase capital reserves or decrease the amount of debt they’re holding, if the scenario was deemed a threat to topple the firm.

The bill would also empower the White House to swoop in and dismantle failing Wall Street institutions in order to minimize the impact on the finance system as a whole — a strategy modeled on the authority of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to intervene when commercial banks are threatening to fall.

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