During its weeklong deliberations, Congress made many changes to the Bush administration’s original proposal to bail out the financial industry, but one overarching aspect of the initial plan that remains is the vast discretion it gives to the Treasury secretary.
The draft legislation, which will be put to a House vote on Monday, gives Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. and his successor extraordinary power to decide how the $700 billion bailout fund is spent. For example, if he thinks it wise, he may buy not only mortgages and mortgage-backed securities, but any other financial instrument.
To be sure, the Treasury secretary’s powers have been tempered since the original Bush administration proposal, which would have given Mr. Paulson nearly unfettered control over the program. There are now two separate oversight panels involved, one composed of legislators and the other including regulatory and administration officials.
Still, Mr. Paulson can choose to buy from any financial institution that does business in the United States, or from pension funds, with wide discretion over what he will buy and how much he will pay. Under most circumstances, banks owned by foreign governments are not eligible for the money, but under some conditions, the secretary can choose to bail out foreign central banks.
Under the bill, the Treasury is to buy the securities at prices he deems appropriate. Mr. Paulson may set prices through auctions but is not required to do so.
Rarely if ever has one man had such broad authority to spend government money as he sees fit, with no rules requiring him to seek out the lowest possible price for assets being purchased.