It started with . Then it was . Now the list of bailout supplicants queuing for government handouts includes farmers, motorhome makers, home builders, governors, the city of Gary, Indiana, and even some newspapers.
Trust me, that's only the beginning.
When we look back at 2008 a few years from now, the most fateful political development may not be the actual congressional vote for a $700 billion bailout. Instead, it may be the cultural shift that allowed that vote to happen.
As recently as September, the Republicans adopted a platform that said: "We do not support government bailouts of private institutions." The same month, then-candidate Barack Obama said it would be "wholly unreasonable" to bail out Wall Street without meaningful oversight.
But thanks to prodding from the Bailout Party -- whose leaders include George W. Bush, Nancy Pelosi, Hank Paulson, and Barney Frank -- a quiescent Congress .
Washington, of course, suffers from no shortage of lobbyists hoping to navigate the political process for financial gain. But until last fall, both major parties generally agreed that bailouts for failing companies should be limited and rare. The Treasury's emergency loan guarantee to Lockheed Corporation in 1971 was only $250 million.
Any semblance of frugality seems to be vanishing from Washington culture. Obama wants a so-called stimulus of $775 billion, while Bush's support for bailout upon bailout has stymied Republican opposition. Most Americans oppose handouts; most politicians love them.
Meanwhile, the bailout's cost has ballooned to $8.5 trillion, not counting the $5.2 trillion in Fannie and Freddie guarantees. (To be sure, taxpayers will recover part of that $13.7 trillion, a figure larger than the combined totals of every war this country has ever fought.)
Other prospective bailout petitioners:
Then there are the . Even if you believe that AIG, Wells Fargo, Merrill Lynch, and so on truly were too big to fail, who can argue with a straight face that Connecticut taxpayers must bail out two failing local newspapers? Or that dairy farmers in Dane County, Wisc. are crucial to the economy? How about San Jose, Calif. or Gary, Indiana?
Handing out bailouts to failed enterprises does little but ensure a shrinking number of well-managed ones and a growing number of failures. It rewards managers and business owners who acted irresponsibly at the expense of the careful and prudent. The principle of self-reliance becomes forgotten.
In my in October, I wrote: "Members of Congress will have a strong incentive to demand preferential treatment for borrowers in their home districts or among politically-favored constituencies." We now know that the House of Representative members who supported a Detroit bailout received 65 percent more auto industry cash than those who didn't. We also know that bailout recipients were big political donors.
This process is toxic to our political system. But unless real opposition to the Bailout Party develops, expect much more of the same.
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. He previously was Wired's Washington bureau chief and a reporter for Time.com and Time magazine in Washington, D.C. He has taught journalism, public policy, and First Amendment law. He is an occasional programmer, avid analog and digital photographer, and lives in the San Francisco Bay area. His e-mail address is email@example.com
By Declan McCullagh