US financial crisis: The day Main Street struck back at Wall Street
Congressmen who kicked out the Hank Paulson bail-out were in tune with their constituents. Toby Harnden listens to hard-pressed Americans incensed by what they see as the villain of the financial crisis - Wall Street - being given billions more to squander
By Toby Harnden
Last Updated: 9:45AM BST 01 Oct 2008
From the floor of the chamber of the House of Representatives, Congressman Jeff Miller of Florida, his spectacles perched on his nose, paused before delivering his verdict on President George W. Bush's $700 billion economic rescue plan.
Above him were marble bas relief portraits of lawgivers through the ages, from Moses to Suleiman the Magnificent to Thomas Jefferson. The "gentleman from Florida", it was announced, would be yielded to for two minutes.
As one of the most conservative members of the United States Congress, Mr Bush and the Republican leaders of the House might have expected that Mr Miller was about to give an impassioned speech in favour of the legislation they had negotiated. If they did, they could not have been more wrong.
He lambasted Mr Bush, who won overwhelmingly in Mr Miller's district in the Florida panhandle in the 2000 and 2004 elections, for approving the bill. He was scathing about Hank Paulson, the US Treasury Secretary and former Goldman Sachs chief executive, for demanding "$700 billion of taxpayer money for his friends and former colleagues on Wall Street".
Mr Bush's bill, he argued, ran counter to the founding principles of the United States. It was asking Main Street to bail out Wall Street and taxpayers to hand over cash and power to Mr Paulson and his cronies the villains whose greed was responsible for creating the economic crisis.
"The founders of this great nation set up an ingenious system of government to ensure that power was not disproportionately given to any one individual.
"The goal was to avoid tyranny at all costs. But Secretary Paulson most likely skipped class that day and was hoping that we had as well. Many wonder how such a poorly constructed piece of legislation could even come to the Congress in the first place. And I wonder how our President approved this as well."
Mr Miller closed by remarking that he was speaking for the people as well as from principle in rejecting the bill. "I can tell you that an overwhelming majority of my constituents have called, emailed and written to my office stating their outright opposition to any sort of bailout. The American taxpayer deserves better than what we are getting here today."
By the time the voting had finished, Mr Miller was one of 228 House members who said "nay" against 205 "yeas". Despite the pleas of Mr Bush and the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill, just 65 Republicans backed the bill while Mr Miller and 132 others rejected it. It was a humiliating defeat, even for a lame duck president and its unexpectedness revealed a political class in Washington dangerously out of touch with the American heartland.
Speaker after speaker denounced the bill. It was "the slippery slope to socialism," said Congressman Jeb Hensarling of Texas. "It was no mistake that, during the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the slogan was, 'Peace, land, and bread,'' thundered Congressman Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan. "Today, you are being asked to choose between bread and freedom."
Congressman Paul Broun of Georgia declared: "Madam Speaker, this is a huge cow patty with a piece of marshmallow stuck in the middle of it, and I'm not going to eat that cow patty."
Even Congressman John Boehner, the Republican minority leader, who appeared close to tears as he begged his foot soldiers to vote "yea", had referred to the bill as a "crap sandwich".
Opinion polls reveal Congress as one of the least respected institutions in the US. Its favourability rating hovers around 20 per cent nearly 10 points below that of Mr Bush, the most consistently unpopular president since polling began.
But House members, who have to be re-elected every two years, pride themselves on representing the views of their constituents. On this occasion, they did just that.
Mr Miller's district on Florida's "Emerald Coast" is culturally part of the Deep South. It contains the port of Pensacola and its naval air base as well as the massive Eglin air force base where the "bunker buster" BLU-82 bomb used in Afghanistan was developed, along with the 21,000lb munition known as the MOAB or "Mother of All Bombs".
It is also home to Niceville the name was changed from Boggy in 1910 to attract tourists and its population of 12,370. Every year, it hosts the Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival that's mullet as in fish, not haircuts.
"The priorities of the people here are God, home and country," said Judy Boudreaux, who runs a wedding video business and is a Niceville city council member. "The air force base makes us very patriotic. It's a bedroom community surrounded by water and beautiful bayous. I'm originally from Washington DC so I know the bad and the ugly. This is utopia. It's just really, really nice."
But Niceville, like the rest of America, is hurting. "People are feeling the crunch, the tightness of money," said Mrs Boudreaux. "We are seeing home foreclosures big time. But the word I'm getting from everyone and I agree is that we do not want this bail-out.
"It's not that we don't want to address the problem but the people who lent the money need to be made accountable for what they did. Bailing them out is not good stewardship."
At Danny's Fried Chicken restaurant, Cathy Baum said that money was so tight that neither she nor her parents could get any credit. "There's so much debt around and it's just the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. I can't get a loan and I don't know what the future holds."
The website of the Pensacola News Journal has been deluged with comments supporting Mr Miller.
Why were those "who poisoned the meat being allowed another enormous taxpayer-financed banquet for Wall St?" asked one contributor. "Most Americans now know this is like asking the Nazis to establish a gigantic religious revival for the Jews."
Another said: "We need to be calling our people in Washington and demand that those who did this be put in the poor house also. Until we hold those accountable this will happen over and over again. Ring those phones off the hook and write till your fingers fall off. If they don't listen vote them out come election time I say."
Many called for heads to roll in Washington. "Paulson should be run out on a rail. Back room deals to save his choice of banks at the expense of the taxpayer. CORRUPTION!! I've never seen such B.S. in all my life," was a typical sentiment.
There was something for everyone to hate the government intervention into the free markets, the kowtowing to Armani-clad bankers, the suggestion that there was no alternative.
With a 37 point margin of victory when he was re-elected to his fourth term in 2006, Mr Miller has one of the safest seats in the country. But many of his colleagues feared that a "throw the bums out" mentality could doom them on November 4 if they voted for the bill.
Throughout the Capitol building, congressional staff reported an almost unprecedented wave of outrage against the bill.
Congressman Chris Van Hollen, one of 95 mainly liberal Democrats who voted no (140 voted yes), said his office had received 3,000 phone calls, 3,000 emails, with 100 people being against the bill for every one who was for it.
"We've had our first death threat and in one phone call I was called both a communist and a fascist," said one shell-shocked aide to another Democrat who eventually voted no. "There was no pressure from our leadership to vote for this we were told to follow our consciences and our constituents."
Despite being implored to support the bill by the President, two presidential candidates and the leaders of both parties in both houses of Congress, the people said no. While one New York newspaper derided the House members as the "Fools on the Hill", in many cases their actions were based on a sense of democracy.
Rather than being pushed through behind closed doors in the proverbial though now cigarette free smoke-filled rooms, as such a deal would have been done in Britain, the bailout bill was dealt with in the light of day.
What the votes of Mr Miller and his ilk will do to the global economy will be hotly debated for months and perhaps years to come.
But many Americans from coast to coast and border to border in places as nice as Niceville and in other places not so nice feel that, for once, their Congress has listened to them and done the right thing.