When you think of all the investments the United States could undertake for $700 billion that would make a real difference in the lives of its citizens, the idea that taxpayers could be on the hook for protecting the greedy from the consequences of their grotesquely irresponsible behavior ought to make Americans ill.

When you think of all the investments the United States could undertake for $700 billion that would make a real difference in the lives of its citizens, the idea that taxpayers could be on the hook for protecting the greedy from the consequences of their grotesquely irresponsible behavior ought to make Americans ill.


That said, if Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is to be believed as he describes in apocalyptic, Great Depression-type terms the impact of doing nothing or too little - "This is the least costly path," he insists - then some remedy from Congress is inevitable.


That does not mean Congress should give Paulson everything he wants. The first rule of governing should always be "first, do no harm."


This $700 billion would do some harm, mostly because it's not just $700 billion but $700 billion on top of the $600 billion that's already on the table in bailout money, on top of the $700 billion we've roughly spent so far on the war, most of it in Iraq. That's a cool $2 trillion from the people who run the nation on our behalf, who misrepresented themselves to us as the fiscal disciplinarians they obviously were not.


It's also $2 trillion with interest, because we're going to borrow this money, and we're probably going to be in China's debt even more than we are already, and our grandchildren are going to be contemptuous of us because they're going to get stuck with the bill. With America's debt approaching $10 trillion, President Bush is asking Congress to raise the ceiling to $11.3 trillion, double what he inherited. And while those Chinese will be investing in their infrastructure and transforming themselves into a modern nation to compete with America, we instead will be paying for our past mistakes. Not exactly a recipe for success.


Meanwhile, no matter who wins the presidency, this could mean a tax increase. If so, file it under George W. Bush's name, not Barack Obama's or John McCain's.


In short, these mortgage-backed securities that Paulson wants taxpayers to buy aren't called "toxic" for nothing. This might be the medicine our ailing economy needs right now, but it's also a poison pill for our future. Congress should recognize that before it regrets it.


First, we'd remind Congress who's calling the shots. It's not Paulson, an appointed official and former Goldman Sachs guy who will probably be gone in four months, back to his Illinois home in mansion-multiplying Barrington Hills. We expect Congress to fulfill its check-and-balance role here and not be a rubber stamp.


To that point, who's to look over Paulson's shoulder? If Paulson has his way, no one will. That's a deal breaker in this democracy of ours, it's partly why we're in this mess to begin with, and Congress absolutely should say no to that.


Second, we're tempted to suggest that $700 billion is only a starting point, that the ending point should only be lower, that the feds be careful not to overpay for this bad paper. Unfortunately, the Catch-22 is that if Uncle Sam doesn't do enough, banks won't start lending again and the economy won't get the capital it needs. Conversely, if Uncle Sam can't recoup what he pays for those assets, taxpayers are out the difference. This is one tough balancing act, and it's hard to maintain your balance in a panic, in a hurry. Slow down some.


Third, and this is a warning to Democrats, there had better not be any unrelated add-ons to this bill. This is a federal emergency, and no congressman should be exploiting this crisis to build his bridge to nowhere.


Fourth, that does not mean no strings should be attached. Taxpayers can be forgiven for demanding their pound of flesh in exchange for Uncle Sam's gigantic hand on their wallets.


Washington's overboard flirtation with deregulation helped bring us to this day of reckoning; we must reintroduce accountability to an all-too-free market. Please, no lectures from the capitalists who brought us socialism. The challenge here will be not to overstep, not to smother innovation.


It's also time to put the brakes on runaway CEO pay. Since I'll-scratch-your-back, you-scratch-mine corporate boards have proven they cannot be responsible, shareholders should be allowed to show them how. For Richard Fuld to make $354 million over five years running Lehman Brothers into the ground is obscene, as it was for Angelo Mozilo at Countrywide Financial, etc. It's an old-fashioned conservative principle: Pay ought to be tied to performance.


Frankly, the corporate losers here don't have much leverage. Getting something for nothing is the very definition of welfare. If Americans can agree on anything, it's that Wall Street should not be getting welfare.


We appreciate that the temptation is strong for many Americans to want their government to do whatever it takes - yesterday - to reverse the slide in their retirement savings. There's a lot at stake here, domestically and internationally. But we will survive this, and Uncle Sam needs to get this right. An urgent Congress need not be a rushed Congress.


Peoria Journal Star