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OPINION

Lesson from AIG: Time to Stop the Bailout Stampede

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
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The doublespeak coming from leading Congressional Democrats and the Obama Administration has reached new heights this week. Taxpayers are rightfully outraged at reports that after financing hundreds of billions in federal bailouts, they are now also footing the bill for AIG executives receiving $165 million in retention pay and "performance-based" bonuses-- when many of these same executives are responsible for putting AIG in its untenable position in the first place.

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The Administration is likewise expressing outrage over the AIG bonus payments, but this of course comes after White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs assured the American people that the Administration knew how every dime AIG had received thus far had been spent. The White House continues to offer no explanation for the fact that these bonus contracts were on the books well before the most recent plan to award the struggling financial conglomerate with another $30 billion was announced.

To be clear, American taxpayers have financed AIG's bad investment and management decisions not once, but three times: first a $60 billion loan, then $50 billion to buy toxic assets, and then $40 billion to buy preferred shares of stock. And now, another $30 billion installment from the second half of TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Funds) approved earlier this year.

Then, Monday night, after most of the AIG bonuses had already been disbursed, Democrats began calling for a tax on the AIG executives who had received these hefty bonuses. Yet only a month ago, when the Senate considered the $787 billion stimulus bill, Senate Democrats passed an amendment by Senator Chris Dodd providing an exception for "contractually obligated bonuses agreed on before Feb. 11, 2009." That is, Senator Dodd and other Democrat leaders who are decrying the outrageousness of exorbitant executive bonuses were the very ones to guarantee that the bonus checks would be written.

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Senator Dodd arguably wields more influence over the banking industry than any other Member of the U.S. Senate, as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. According to opensecrets.com, Senator Dodd was AIG's largest single recipient of campaign donations during the 2008 election cycle; and one of AIG's largest offices is based in Connecticut. The connection is stark: the Senator from Connecticut ensured executives were allowed to receive their exorbitant bonuses even at the expense of American people struggling to pay their bills and keep their homes.

It's becoming increasingly clear that both the elected and appointed Democratic leaders at the helm of the world's largest financial ship of state, responsible for navigating us out of a spiraling economic crisis, have forfeited the common sense and commitment to the principles of a free market -- the most basic of which is the freedom of business to succeed and the freedom to fail -- which have formed America's economic compass for over two hundred years.

Confidence in the ability of our national leaders to restore stability to our financial markets is the most crucial factor to encouraging the investment of private capital and incentivizing growth in our financial markets again. But with government leaders performing like this, one can't blame the markets for continuing to lose faith.

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As for the executive bonuses, unfortunately these contractual obligations are binding and it remains unclear as to whether there is any clear and constitutional method for the government to recoup the $165 million it allegedly never intended to give to the AIG executives. Over two hundred years of common law precludes the imposition of retroactive taxation or a politically-motivated tax aimed at specific individuals, let alone the dangerous precedent that would be set by such action.

But hardworking taxpayers should not lose sight of the bigger picture. The unfortunate reality is that $165 million is a mere drop in the bucket when one considers that they are actually being left on the hook for nearly $200 billion in bailout funds AIG has been allocated at taxpayer expense.

The AIG bonus fiasco only signifies the much larger problem of government intervention in the private sector, whether in the mortgage industry, credit markets, or any other aspect of our free market economy. Those of us who have voted against each of the consecutive government bailouts starting in September 2008 cannot help but believe that our commitment to preserving the principles of our free market has now been vindicated.

If we're to effectively "plug the holes" in the deflating balloon of consumer confidence, the Democratic leaders in government must commit to returning to the simple principles of personal responsibility, transparency, and integrity which they're demanding of everyone else, whether individuals or financial giants like AIG. Looking forward, the only viable response to incentivizing real economic growth and bringing true stability to our ailing financial markets absolutely must include an exit strategy for the growing government monopolies of private financial assets.

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