Observations about the Auto Bailout

Things went badly for Detroit’s automakers in Washington this week. What was to be a decisive lobbying blitz planned months in advance proved reminiscent of GM’s efforts to market the Chevy Nova in Latin America. Both were all show, no va!

The arguments against a bailout under any circumstances are well-established. A lot has been said and written lately, including this new piece, about the improprieties of so-called bailouts, generally, and in this case, specifically. Basically, we need a shakeout, not a bailout. What we’re witnessing is a shakedown.

Rather than emphasize those arguments here, there is a lot of subtext to this auto bailout frenzy. The subtext hasn’t received much attention, but is fascinating enough (to me at least) to write about.

Even before CorporateJetGate forced Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to bid the CEOs an abrupt and scathing adieu, support for Detroit’s case to raid the Treasury was melting away. But there wasn’t that much of a partisan divide over the issue. In fact, early October’s limited government, fiscal conservative darling, Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI), who gave one of the most compelling, moving, forceful, principled floor-speeches I’ve ever seen on the House floor in opposition to the financial bailout, is this month’s political hack. Apparently, his principled opposition to bailing out the “very people who caused this problem” doesn’t extend across state lines into Michigan. What a bitter disappointment he turns out to be.

The failure to garner enough support for a bailout bill was mostly the result of intra-party squabbling between factions within the Democratic Party — the Greens and the Laborites. The Greens view Detroit as carbon-belching heathens who must be brought to their knees before the almighty Sierra, Goddess of Flora and Fauna. The Laborites view the Greens as the Palinistas view those big shots who go to college to learn and stuff.

A Wall Street Journal editorial today picks up on this theme, which colors the battle between Henry Waxman (of the ascendant Greens) and John Dingell (of the declining Laborites) for Dingell’s long-held seat as top Democratic on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Much of the same cultural and class animus that popularly defined the Red State-Blue State divide is very much evident within the Democratic Party itself and could mean that we have some form of divided government after all.

Credit the Bush administration for helping to drive this wedge between the factions and sideline the bailout — for the time being at least. “Credit” might be too strong a word since, after all, it was the Bush administration that concocted the mother of all bailouts in the first place. The automakers just want a teensy-weensy $25 billion, or 3.57%, of the $700 billion pot.

But here’s how the administration played a role. First, Treasury secretary Henry Paulson claimed he was unauthorized to allocate any of the $700 billion to the automakers under the TARP law. Congress didn’t challenge that interpretation too vehemently, and set out to rewrite the law to specifically authorize $25 billion for Detroit. But the White House indicated it wouldn’t sign that legislation, but that it would go along with a bill to redirect the $25 billion already authorized under the energy bill for Detroit to “retool” its plants to produce higher-mileage vehicles. This seemed the more workable political solution, until the Waxman faction objected and mobilized. Prospects for a deal went south after that.

The corporate jet scandal was actually a gift to Pelosi and Reid. Instead of the focus being on the fractiousness of the Democratic Party and the question of whether those two can herd cats, the press had a field day with the spectacle of top hats and tails in soup kitchens.

It’s revealing, though, that the congressional leadership didn’t once ask how the $25 billion infusion would be used to right the ship until AFTER the bailout idea was made toxic by the CEOs’ choices of transportation. It should have been the very first question. Other than helping to cover operating expenses for four to five months, how is $25 billion going to rescue three companies that are bleeding $6 billion per month? Seems pretty straightforward. When you go to a bank for a loan and say you’re bleeding cash and facing imminent collapse, should you expect the loan officer to write you a check? Shouldn’t the banker at least be interested in a business plan?

Well, the idea of a business plan didn’t even strike Pelosi and Reid until yesterday, when they told the CEOs to go back, sharpen their pencils, and show us how you’ll succeed. In a statement this afternoon reported in CQ Daily, which reveals how utterly lost in space the leadership is when it comes to business, Pelosi said she and Reid “would make it clear [to the three auto companies] they want to know how the automakers ‘plan to make investments in the advanced technologies, so that they can compete in the marketplace, so that people will want to buy their cars.’ The letter will also reiterate demands for accountability, including a ban on bonuses for executives earning more than $200,000 and a freeze on dividend payments.”

Then, as though to give the Justice Department’s antitrust division one last task, Pelosi invited the companies to collude. About providing their business plans, she said, “They could do it singly, jointly or severally, however they wish. But we need to have that response” (as though it were akin to a permission slip signed by a parent).

Maybe someone will say I’m being too harsh. But this dismissive tone, this lack of understanding the purpose of business plans, this conflating of irreconciliable objectives (like stopping the immediate financial bleeding by investing in green car technology), all suggest that the congressional leadership, and probably most Greens and Laborites, don’t really care one bit what happens to the companies, as long as their own political objectives are served.

The Greens want to show the world that consideration of production costs and consumer demand is passé. It’s all about the product being made quietly and invisibly. Someone should remind them there were no latte stands in the Stone Age either.

The Laborites seem most concerned about making sure the unions persist, but act as though the companies’ health has nothing to do with the unions’. If they really cared about saving the Detroit automakers, they would support the bankruptcy process. The automakers cannot survive much longer unless they shred their labor contracts. But if they shred the contracts, union management will have less to give to the Laborite politicians. It’s tough business these days being a leach on a leach.