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Voices among a $700-billion question

As the election approaches, a reporter and a photographer set out for Washington, D.C., via America. We tell stories from seven towns, touching on seven issues from politics and real life.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Senate hearing room is quiet, like a morgue, as a woman reserves seats up front for Treasury Department officials.

In walks James Lockhart. He's the director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and now he's the government regulator in charge of failed financiers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Long ago, in Andover, Mass., he went to high school with the president.

"Hi, Scott. Nice to see you," he says to a colleague.

They shake hands.

"Well," he says, a little smile on his lips, "here we are again."

Here we are again, the room filling, the lobbyists and money men wearing pocket squares, the correspondents tapping at their laptops, the women in pink trying to get closer, the security guards watching them, all of them bearing witness to another power struggle between the people, the lawmakers and the president's men.

Only this time it's different.

It's unprecedented.

"We live in amazing and dangerous times," says a senator from New York.

"Uncharted waters," says a senator from Nebraska.

"The most palpable sense of national crisis since we gathered here in this building immediately following the 9/11 attacks," says a senator from Kentucky.

The government men in the hot lights — one of them is nicknamed the Hammer — are asking for $700-billion to fix the economy, to correct the credit markets that have seized, to save us from growing our own vegetables and hitchhiking cross-country to pick peaches.

Seven-hundred-billion dollars. Does that register?

Hold that number for a minute while we catch a cab to the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, at 14th and C streets, and join a public tour with vacationers from Ohio and Michigan.

The dollar was born in a single-room attic on Aug. 28, 1867. Six employees toiled on $1 and $2 bills.

Now, the bureau covers 27 acres here and in Fort Worth, Texas, where 2,500 employees work 24 hours a day to make 38-million notes, from $1 to $100.

So how much is $700-billion?

According to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, a stack of $100s roughly 5 feet tall is equal to $1-million. So a stack of $700-billion in $100s would be 3.5-million-feet tall, or 663 miles.

In God We Trust, from Tampa to New Orleans.

Across town, the threats are flying in bureaucratic lingo.

"If this is not done, there will be significant adverse consequences," says Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, his voice sometimes shaking.

"How many times can the administration be wrong and still instill confidence?" asks a senator from New Jersey.

David Dixon, 23, stands to face the senators in silent protest, a kid from Southern California trying to be seen and heard in a city full of lost causes.

A security guard tells him to take a seat.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.

Voices among a $700-billion question 09/28/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 29, 2008 8:44pm]
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