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Debating the Bailout, Torturing Language

By Dana Milbank

The American people need a bailout -- from toxic metaphors.

Rep. Paul Broun, a Georgia Republican, was downright earthy in his imagery this morning as he rose to denounce the financial bailout package before the House. "Madam Speaker, this is a huge cow patty with a piece of marshmallow stuck in the middle of it," he declared. "I'm not going to eat that cow patty."

"The members will be relieved," responded Barney Frank, the Democrats' floor leader for the bill, "to know I have no matching metaphor."

Frank must have been the only one without a rhetorical cow patty to dump on the House floor this morning.

Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich) found a precedent for the bailout bill in Russian lit. "The choice is stark and it was put forth in the book by Dostoevsky, in the Brothers Karamazov," he informed his peers. "The grand inquisitor came to Jesus and said, 'If you wish to subject the people, give them miracle, mystery and authority but above all give them bread.'"

Rep. John Abney Culberson (R-Texas) disagreed. He thought the proper metaphor resided in the 16th century. "We're creating a King Henry here that will buy any type of financial instrument he wants from anywhere in the world owned by anybody," he said.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat, thought the problem was skin deep. "Not even Avon or Mary Kay can compete with the cosmetics in this bill," he asserted.

Rep. Dan Lundgren (R-Calif), one of relatively few speakers in support of the legislation, encouraged lawmakers to think about the seaside. "Years ago, when I was much younger, I was a lifeguard," he boasted. "And I recall one of the first lessons you learn as a lifeguard is if you know there is a dangerous undertow, you get the people back on the beach and out of the water."

As the House took up the bailout package this morning, supporters of the unpopular bill were reluctant to take up the cause on the floor because, as Rep. Gary Miller (R-Calif) put it, "this is probably the toughest vote any of us has taken since we've been in Congress." To speak in favor of it, agreed Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC), is "just not fun."

Behind the scenes, leaders in both parties scrambled for votes in support of the bill. On the floor, the demagogues and zealots dominated the debate.

"I would move to adjourn so we don't do this terrible thing to our nation," Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said at the start of the debate before 9 a.m. The "terrible thing" in Gohmert's mind was the bailout legislation, and his motion to adjourn went down, 394 votes to eight.

But, on the positive side, if Gohmert's motion had passed, he would have saved the nation from some truly bankrupt phrases.

Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida, a carrot-topped member of the GOP leadership once unkindly described by a colleague as a "Howdy Doody-lookin' nimrod," started out with a fortune cookie. "There's no an old Chinese proverb: 'May you live in interesting times,'" Putnam informed his colleagues. "These are interesting and remarkable times."

The times were made all the interesting and remarkable by McCotter, who, after invoking Dostoevsky and Jesus, reminded his colleagues, "during the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the slogan was peace, land and bread. Today you are being asked to choose between bread and freedom."

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va) had a messianic figure other than Jesus on his mind. "Thank you, Barney Frank, for saving the economy!" he said.

But proponents had trouble mustering enthusiasm for a $700 billion taxpayer giveaway to Wall Street, because, as Frank put it, "rarely have the members had so many reasons for wishing we weren't here."

Indeed, those few proponents who did go to the floor to voice support for the bill did so apologetically.

"I'm not here in defense of Wall Street fat cats," said Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa), who felt it necessary to resort to the old typing drill: "It is a time for all good men to come to the defense of our country."

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc), a former free-marketeer, tied himself in a knot as he announced: "This bill offends my principles but I'm going to vote for this bill to preserve my principles." Before people could digest that, he added: "This is a Herbert Hoover moment."

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) denounced the "mother of all bailouts," while Rep. Gresham Barrett (R-SC) disclosed that "my daddy always told me you can't borrow your way out of debt."

The high-minded quoted Benjamin Franklin; "They that can give up liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither," said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind). Others quoted action heroes. "My governor often says, 'I'll be back,'" said California Republican Darryl Issa. "I have no doubt I'll be back. . . trying to fix the problems next year that we don't fix here today."

And Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo) was a one-man train wreck of colliding metaphors as he invoked animal imagery ("the horns of a dilemma. . . two sharp, shiny points we could impale ourselves on"), meteorological imagery ("the sky was going to fall") and weapons imagery ("it's nice to take a bullet for the team").

The verbal misfires ricocheted across the chamber: Asleep at the switch!. . . The worm turns! . . . Russian roulette . . A financial gun to the head. . . Pull the trigger!. . .Take the bullets! . . Jumping off this precipice. . . Get our house in order."

The embattled proponents of the legislation pushed back, proving that they, too, could torture their imagery. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi argued that the crisis snuck "up on us, so silently, almost on little cat's feet." And Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) urged that "we don't allow the sky to fall on America's middle class and poor folks."

But is it OK if the sky falls on the cow patties?

By Dana Milbank  | September 29, 2008; 12:59 PM ET
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The problem is that the financial industry and their comrades in the Bush/McCain Socialist Republican party are trying to pretend they aren't bailing out the fat cats in the top 0.1 percent.

So they have to use fake words to fake us out.

Oh, sure, some Republicans will be permitted to vote No on the deal to save their seats - but you know if it comes up short they'll revote yes.

Only an idiot would trust a Bush/McCain plan - it only helps the ultra-rich and defrauds the 99.9 percent of us who don't think $5 million a year is middle class.

Posted by: Will in Seattle | September 29, 2008 2:12 PM | Report abuse

Nouriel Roubini (Wall Street's Dr. Doom) predicted this stupid meltdown ages ago, and was pooh-poohed by the very people that have their hands out. He also thinks this "bailout" is a stupid idea.

Many other economists agree

Copy and e-mail the links to your representative, senators and both presidential campaigns, every day.

Thank you.

Posted by: BabbleOn | September 29, 2008 2:15 PM | Report abuse

John McCain is screwing with your money...

Posted by: karlron | September 29, 2008 2:16 PM | Report abuse


It's always been the reactionary Republican wing's principle to "take no prisoners." And in this case the "army" shot the country rather than become a prisoner of a "socalist" bailout as one random congressman from texas said on the Newshour recently.

So it seems he would rather be "dead than red" than save the country. But he does not understand that the rest of us would rather be saved with a little more government oversight than have our lives destroyed with none.

Posted by: Kurt | September 29, 2008 3:23 PM | Report abuse

One possible highly effective approach to make the $700 billion deal more palatable to Main Street is to have the fatcats of Wall Street lead by example: make a reasonable financial contribution (Fortune 500 CEOs, CFOs...), show their collective responsibility in times of unprecedented crisis, which was made by some of their own. If Wall Streeters are not willing to make such a contribution (not acrifice), why should the taxpayer do? Such a gesture buys them goodwill from Main Street, which is critical at this time. The perception is that not only they are not willing to contribute, but rather waiting like vultures for the next juicy meal, as if nothing has changed. The least thing they could do is show some understanding and appreciation toward those who are going to throw them a lifeline, or two, or 700 billion!

However, I am not counting on it!

Posted by: Henry Kharlakian | September 29, 2008 3:29 PM | Report abuse

I am a registered Republican, but I am fed up with this party and with the Dems as well. Every issue is a partisan free-for- all with no grasp of the bigger picture. I believe that the people should join together and vote out of office EVERY incumbent and start fresh. I intend to change my party affiliation to Independent, and to vote my convictions. I wish more partisans would do the same!

Posted by: Reid Fitzgerald | September 29, 2008 3:34 PM | Report abuse

I thought the best metaphor was describing the house and senate trying to pick up a turd from the clean end.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 29, 2008 3:47 PM | Report abuse

OMG. These people are running our country? No wonder we're in such a mess.

Posted by: MoDover | September 29, 2008 4:11 PM | Report abuse

To excuse Palin's recent performances by invoking Biden's gaffes misses the point entirely. If only Palin's troubles were claiming that Roosevelt went on TV to address the Great Depression. We could have a SNL skit and be done with it. If Palin's problem were only a lack of experience. The deeper issue, most unfortunately, is more profound than that. It is the obvious fact that she simply cannot intellectually frame her positions on current issues. She is either terribly nervous and simply cannot enunciate her position. But, I find this difficult to believe given her great performance at the RNC (but, who knows? sans a teleprompter...). More likely, however, it is impossible to learn one's position on a full range of issues by simply cramming. If it were multiple choice, perhaps one could pull it off. Unfortunately, this is an essay test (or the oral equivalent, in front of millions to boot). And, one needs to frame together his/her ideas and respond. Random sentences and phrases cannot simply be spewed out in incoherent order. The only way to perform well in a debate is to know what you believe in and then express them! The problem is she doesn't know what she believes, either because she has not thought about these issues (likely) or the set of positions that are being laid out for her make no coherent sense (equally likely). Would it be a surprise that there is no unifying set of ideas that the McCain campaign is trying to coach into Palin? No rubric. No structure. Just a random set of facts about which there is some detailed, arcane and internally inconsistent position. It's hard for a student to learn if on day (1) Economy is fundamentally strong, then day (2) we've got the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression. On Day (1), regulation is bad. On Day (2), we've got to fire the regulator and draw up new tighter restrictions. Can you imagine being a student? Sure, we can. We're the voters that have had to digest this erratic non-sense. It's all a blur. Palin's responses during an interview are merely a reflection of McCain's campaign. They've taken a candidate who (according to their own words) is quick on the uptake, and reduced her to a bunch of gibberish. She's just got the worst trainers. Time to transfer?

Posted by: truth17 | September 29, 2008 4:42 PM | Report abuse

Weingarten failed to elicit even a smile from me today, but, no worries, Dana Milbank has come through. There is so much to be horrified and disappointed about this fiasco. Thank you, Mr. Milbank, for salvaging a few gems worth laughing at.

Posted by: Patrick Huss | September 29, 2008 5:44 PM | Report abuse

Well, I am sure it took a lot of soul searching among congress' members to vote NO - going against tremendous pressure from House leadership, and the czar of financical crisis management.

The whole deal really smells. Now if I could find some fool who wants to buy my gas hog that would be nice. Maybe the government will buy back all of the vehicles that no body wants because they use too much fuel.

All these years, we were told don't worry about fuel economny standards because the market will decide. Now that the market has decided in favor of fuel economy -- hybrids are selling good -- what are we supposed to do with our gas hogs?

Likewise, we were told don't worry about making a down payment, or don't worry about those big mortgage payments because the housing market will just keep going up, up, up over the moon. Well now that the housing market has drowned under a sea of debt -- remember the DEAD SEA? -- what are we supposed to do with our MEGA HOMES?

If I can't pay the mortgage, can't pay the utility/heating bill, nor the water bill -- because my job was exported -- well maybe it is time to retire and move to Mexico. I heard life is good in Mexico, where the value of the peso is looking better every day. But can you drink the water, down south?

As the U.S. slips off its holier than thou pedastal, and the Statue of Liberty drops her crown, surely other countries must be laughing all the way to the bank.

Is that enough metaphors for your pundit minded readership?

Posted by: Richard | September 29, 2008 6:07 PM | Report abuse

Rep. Putnam (FL-R) is quoted as saying, "There's an old Chinese proverb: May you live in interesting times."

No, that's not a proverb. It's said to be a Chinese curse.

Posted by: jhbyer | September 29, 2008 6:16 PM | Report abuse

More video, Dana! How about getting more of those Code Pink Pattys?

Posted by: JC | September 29, 2008 6:16 PM | Report abuse

It is unfortunate that Pelosi and Frank had to play politics and the political blame game, before the vote on this critical but not perfect legislation. As a result Pelosi and Frank scared away enough House Minority Party Republican votes, along with 40% of the House Majority Party Democrats, to defeat the bill.

Pelosi along with Boxer are well known as two of the ultimate meanspirited attack-dogs ( there is another name for dogs like them but it might be perceived as chauvanistic ) in the House. They cannot for one minute, not be partisan and not be trying to blame the Republicans for anything and everything. How amusing looking back at Pelosi/Reid's comments when they took over as the majority party in Congress. Bipartisanship? New day? Get things done?

It was the pressure by the Democrats to force Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to approve loans for unqualified borrowers that partially led us to this crisis and mismanagement. Eevn Barney Frank, while Chairing his own Committee Hearing scoffed at the warnings in the last two years that this pressure was going to backfire.

Like Obama's "change we can believe in" and "change we need" slogans, that is all they are. Obama has never reached across the aisle and never provided any leadership ( including "call me if you need me" on the Bailout legislation )while a community activist and organizer in the Chicaog machine politics, the Illinois State Senate nor the US Senate.

Typical emty rhetoric from emty lying suits. It will be interesting how they will blame the Republicans, if they not only control the House and Senate but also the White House.

By the way, anyone notice the MSNBC news about the major problems at the SEC? Isn't Chris Cox, the SEC Chair, the same person McCain stated should be fired? Wasn't McCain criticized by Obama for being wrong on this?

Posted by: rljmsilver | September 29, 2008 6:32 PM | Report abuse

Oh thank you Mr. Milbank for a good laugh and look at reality. This made my day.

Posted by: hillaryhead | September 29, 2008 7:53 PM | Report abuse

I haven't seen this mouch looting since the fall of Bagdhad!

Posted by: Pent up | September 29, 2008 9:00 PM | Report abuse

Someone tell Rep. Broun that he does not need to eat a cow patty - he IS a cow patty.

Please, voters in Georgia, put him out to pasture where he can do some good!

Posted by: Susan | September 29, 2008 9:26 PM | Report abuse

They blame the Republicans. Looking at percentages, more Republicans supported it than Democrats. They would not vote with their own party, so live with it. No one is happy with this. We will suffer together.

Posted by: g8rrick | September 29, 2008 11:23 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for this - your columns are always a treat and usually the highlight of the whole Post. (My mother thinks so too!)

As to our elected representatives - what a bunch of hacks and windbags. They should pay more attention to Obama - that's how it oughta be done.

Posted by: st1023 | September 30, 2008 12:17 AM | Report abuse

On November 12, 1999, Bill Clinton signed into law the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which repealed the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. In effect, it allowed the merger of investment banking and lending institutions. This legislation contributed, as economists such as Robert Kuttner have stated, the 2007 subprime mortgage financial crisis. So, if Pelosi is going to blame, William Jefferson Clinton is the place to start.

Upon taking control of Congress. Pelosi took the speaker status nearly two years ago, and her first priorities were to "move quickly on an agenda of health-care, homeland security, education and energy proposals:" There was no mention of regulating financial institutions and lending practices.

In March of 2007, the Senate Banking Committee was told that the Federal Reserve had not acted fast enough, and that Washington Democrats feared that any regulations would cut into consumer spending and pull down the economy. They did not act out of fear.

Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, heard about the approaching and imminent crisis first-hand from the experts in the lending industry and did nothing about it. He passed the "buck" and urged the Fed to use its authority to end abusive lending—but did nothing in Congress to regulate the lending industry.

Pelosi and Dodd heard and did nothing about the threat of the impending "tip" of the iceberg that appeared yesterday.

Democrats should take responsibility for what they do or don't do, and not allow Pelosi to do what she and Dodd have been doing for a very long time, and that is, don't pass the buck and blame others for lack of action and then cover-up. They knew of the threat and did nothing about it--and then blamed George W. Bush!

I am glad that many Democrats and Republicans saw through the hypocrisy and turned down the $700 billion debacle. It made me proud and saved me an additional $5200 in taxes in 2009!

Posted by: marchino | September 30, 2008 3:00 PM | Report abuse

You miss the fact that the entire rationale for the bailout has ONLY been laid out in metaphor. "Credit is the grease for the economy...." "Without this measure, the economy will freeze...." "Paulson and Bernanke have peered into the abyss...." Not a single advocate of this measure has been definite, literal and specific in laying out the rationale of the bailout.

Posted by: Mike S | October 2, 2008 1:37 PM | Report abuse

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