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Take taxpayers off hook for rot at Fannie, Freddie

Americans should be outraged at the latest sweetheart deal in Washington. Congress will put U.S. taxpayers on the hook for potentially hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It's a tribute to what these two institutions — which most Americans have never heard of — have bought with more than $170-million worth of lobbyists in the past decade.

With combined obligations of roughly $5-trillion, the rapid failure of Fannie and Freddie would be a threat to mortgage markets and financial markets as a whole. Because of that threat, I support taking the unfortunate but necessary steps needed to keep the financial troubles at these two companies from further squeezing American families. But let us not forget that the threat that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac pose to financial markets is a tribute to crony capitalism that reflects the power of the Washington establishment.

Fannie and Freddie buy home loans from lending institutions and reissue them as marketable securities — creating a liquid market for mortgage debt that lowers borrowing costs for prospective homeowners. The two institutions have easy access to borrow at low interest rates because they were originally government agencies and continue to be viewed as being backed by the government. The irony is that by bailing them out, Congress is about to make that perception a reality, even though government backing is no longer needed for their original mission. There are lots of banks, savings and loans, and other financial institutions that can do this job.

Fannie and Freddie are the poster children for a lack of transparency and accountability. Fannie Mae employees deliberately manipulated financial reports to trigger bonuses for senior executives. Freddie Mac manipulated its earnings by $5-billion. They've misled us about their accounting, and now they are endangering financial markets. More than two years ago, I said: "If Congress does not act, American taxpayers will continue to be exposed to the enormous risk that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac pose." Fannie and Freddie's lobbyists succeeded; Congress failed to act. They've stayed in business, grown, and profited mightily by showering money on lobbyists and favors on the Washington establishment. Now the bill has come due.

What should be done? We are stuck with the reality that they have grown so large that we must support Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac through the current rough spell. But if a dime of taxpayer money ends up being directly invested, the management and the board should immediately be replaced, multimillion dollar salaries should be cut, and bonuses and other compensation should be eliminated. They should cease all lobbying activities and drop all payments to outside lobbyists. And taxpayers should be first in line for any repayments.

Even with those terms, sticking Main Street Americans with Wall Street's bill is a shame on Washington. If elected, I'll continue my crusade for the right reform of the institutions: making them go away. I will get real regulation that limits their ability to borrow, shrinks their size until they are no longer a threat to our economy, and privatizes and eliminates their links to the government.

It's time to get America on the right track by creating the jobs that will build a strong foundation under our housing markets. We need to address the high cost of gasoline and other energy sources, and transform health care to be cheaper, higher quality and built around the needs of patients. But most of all, we need to reform Washington and wrest control from the special interests that have created this problem.

John McCain, a U.S. senator from Arizona, is the presumptive Republican candidate for president.

Take taxpayers off hook for rot at Fannie, Freddie 07/23/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 29, 2008 12:42am]

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