All the world's a stage, wrote Shakespeare, and in the world of Washington, the curtains have opened on the most elaborate farce of the year. Welcome, taxpayers, to the Kabuki Theater of AIG Outrage -- where D.C.'s histrionic enablers of taxpayer-funded corporate bailouts compete for Best Performance of Hypocritical Indignation.
Over the weekend, cloaked in their finest populist costumes, the Beltway's hair-sprayed and powdered politicians and White House aides took to the airwaves to inveigh against $165 million in employee retention payments made by the government-backed insurance giant. Those bennies were reportedly part of a larger $450 million round of bonuses. After subpoenaing AIG, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo informed Congress that 73 employees in the very division responsible for the financial meltdown received bonuses of $1 million or more -- 11 of whom left the company after getting the cash to retain them.
The checks were mailed Friday, but the March 15 bonus deadline had been on the Capitol Hill radar screen since December -- when Maryland Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings released a letter to AIG CEO Edward Liddy that noted: "Without taxpayer intervention, AIG would have ceased to exist and, to be blunt, all of its employees would have lost their jobs. Against this background -- and given the massive layoffs occurring at other major financial entities, such as Citibank -- the American taxpayers have a right to know why senior executives at AIG, who are frankly lucky to still have jobs, need to receive additional bonus payments of any kind to retain them at AIG."
But it wasn't until last week that the hapless court jester of the Obama administration, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, scrambled to rein in the payments. Liddy basically told him to buzz off. Geithner, the primary architect of the original $85 billion AIG bailout last fall, "reluctantly" approved the bonuses anyway. And now his outraged boss has ordered him to scour every legal nook and cranny possible to get the money back.
Spare me President Obama's finger wag. He's "outraged"? Meh. Two weeks ago, Team Obama forked over another $30 billion for the basket-case company after it reported $61.7 billion in fourth-quarter losses. That's on top of the first $85 billion round and the second $38 billion round under Bush -- both of which Obama supported. (Obama, by the way, collected more than $101,000 in AIG campaign contributions.) Don't talk to me about how the Obama administration opposes rewarding failure.
And don't talk to me about all the politicians stampeding to tax AIG's bonuses. Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd, the corporate crony who is the largest recipient of AIG donations, is now leading the charge to tax the retention payments in order to recoup the $450 million the company is paying to employees in its financial products unit.
But Dodd, it turns out, was for protecting AIG's bonuses before he was against them.
Fox Business reporter Rich Edson pointed out that during the Senate porkulus negotiations last month, Dodd successfully inserted a teeny-tiny amendment that provided for an "'exception for contractually obligated bonuses agreed on before Feb. 11, 2009,' which exempts the very AIG bonuses Dodd and others are seeking to tax." Pay no attention to what his left hand was doing. Dodd's right fist is pounding mightily, mightily for the sake of the taxpayers.
The hypocritical indignation on the Hill is bipartisan. On his Twitter page last night, GOP Sen. John McCain huffed: "If we hadn't bailed out AIG = no bonuses for greedy execs." Well, if the GOP presidential candidate had held fast to his opposition to such doomed corporate bailouts in the first place, maybe bailout-palooza wouldn't have spiraled into the gazillion-dollar mess it inevitably became. McCain asserted in a Twitter interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos Tuesday morning that he "would have never bailed out AIG."
But on Sept. 18, 2008, McCain performed a 24-hour flip-flop and abandoned his principled opposition to the $85 billion AIG bailout, lamenting that the "government was forced" to do it. Soon after, McCain joined Obama in supporting the $25 billion auto bailout, the first $350 billion banking bailout (TARP I) and his own massive $300 billion mortgage bailout.
If Washington's newfound opponents of rewarding failure want to do taxpayers a favor, how about giving back their automatic pay raises? How about returning all their AIG donations? How about taking back all the bailout money to all the failed enterprises, from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to AIG, the automakers and the big banks? Barry? Harry? Nancy? John? Chris? Bueller? Bueller?
Exit stage left. The curtain falls.