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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Democratic Bailout Baloney

At least five freshman Democratic House members are running ads claiming they voted against the bank "bailout," when in fact none was in Congress when the bill setting up the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, was enacted.

  • Mary Jo Kilroy says she "voted against the bank bailout."
  • Kathy Dahlkemper says she voted "against a bailout that helped Wall Street."
  • Frank Kratovil claims to have cast his vote in opposition to "the big bank bailout."
  • Dina Titus’ ad maintains she "even voted against the bank bailout."
  • Glenn Nye’s ad tells viewers he went "against his own party" and "voted against the Wall Street bailout."

The final House vote on the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 took place on Oct. 3, 2008. The bill passed, 263-171. None of the five lawmakers who are running these ads is listed in the roll call vote. That’s because none of them had taken office yet – in fact, none of them would even be elected for another month.

So what are they talking about?

It’s fairly simple, and fairly misleading as well. All five of the candidates are claiming opposition to the $700 billion "bailout" because of a vote that occurred months after Congress approved, and President Bush signed, the TARP law.

Here’s what happened: As the law was structured, the treasury secretary (then Henry Paulson) had access to only $350 billion, half of the total package, at first. The second half would be available only if the administration went to Congress and asked for it. Treasury would get the money unless Congress said no. The first $350 billion of the TARP money was quickly spent.

By the time the Bush administration, at the request of President-elect Barack Obama, filed a request with the Senate for the rest of the money on Jan. 12, 2009, there were widespread complaints that too much of the first tranche had been used to bail out large institutions and not enough to help homeowners. The new funds could have been blocked had both houses of Congress voted to do so, but on Jan. 15, 2009, the Senate defeated a disapproval resolution, 52-42, effectively voting to release the funds. Treasury almost immediately announced it would use some of the money to shore up a deeply crippled Bank of America.

Where was the House in all this? Pretty much irrelevant. Eventually there was a similar vote in that body. Kilroy, Dahlkemper, Kratovil, Nye and Titus all voted for the disapproval resolution, and it passed, 270-155. But the vote came on Jan. 22, a week after the Senate’s vote (and two days after Obama was sworn in). Treasury already had the money.

In other words, these five — and everyone else who cast a yea or nay on the resolution — knew the vote on the unpopular program was purely symbolic. Would they have acted differently if their votes had had the potential to actually prevent use of the TARP funds and cripple the early efforts of their new Democratic president to shore up the economy? Who knows? (For the record, Kilroy’s campaign volunteered that she would have voted against the bailout "no matter what the circumstances.") All we know for sure is that they didn’t vote "against the bailout," as their ads claim. That vote preceded their tenures in the House. They voted not to release money the Treasury Department already had, knowing their actions would have no impact on the administration’s ability to deploy the funds as it saw fit.

Most of the five ads mention a string of actions the freshman Democrats took that are meant to illustrate their principled independence. Supposedly voting "against the bailout" is just one of them. But it’s one that didn’t happen, and voters shouldn’t be led to believe otherwise.

Frank Kratovil ad:

Dina Titus ad:

Glenn Nye ad:

Kathy Dahlkemper ad: