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Cardoza 'damn mad' at bankers

Dennis Cardoza is not one of Washington's hotheads. He doesn't call people names, indulge in exchanges of vitriol or get overly exercised in a crisis. That might explain why he's risen through the ranks to sit on the Rules committee and is a leader among the centrist Blue Dog Democrats.

Still, Cardoza got worked up this week. Who wouldn't, with the nation's finances in crisis, a politically paralyzed president, and the unmasked greed of some of our wealthiest citizens having undermined our economy. People here and in the halls of power are furious. There were shouting matches at a White House economic summit, verbal jousting in Congress and angry walkouts.

In such an atmosphere it's not surprising that Cardoza would give free rein to his temper.

"I am damn mad that we are in this situation," he told the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, during a hearing. "I am furious."

Amen to that. Still, it was interesting that the target of Cardoza's ire was another Democrat. Cardoza and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are pushing bills to extend tax credits for renewable energy projects. The loss of those credits is threatening billions of dollars in investments nationwide.

Cardoza wants to pay for the tax credits with budget cuts -- the "pay-as-you-go" approach he has championed for six years. The Senate bill would spend far less, but offers no source for the funds. In effect, it would be added to the deficit.

Word got back to Cardoza that Reid was "furious" about the House bill and Cardoza's support for it. That irritated Cardoza, who found eloquence in his anger.

"Today ... we find ourselves in one hell of a fix because we have not paid for things. We have run up the national debt to beat the band. When Mr. Clinton left office, there was a projection of $5.4 trillion -- trillion -- surplus. Today we are being asked for a $700 billion bailout on top of trillions of dollars that have gone through this Capitol Building ... that have raised the debt, tax cuts that weren't paid for that ballooned the debt, and now we are faced with this horrific problem. ...

"When are we going to start paying for what this country purchases? To say that we shouldn't pay for this (bill) ... that Mr. Reid is furious -- I don't give a damn if Mr. Reid is furious. ... It is high time that we do the right thing."

The next question is what, exactly, is our country purchasing? Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson wants us (i.e., taxpayers) to buy all the nation's bad mortgages. We would be part owners of half-million-dollar homes worth $200,000. Sounds like a bad deal, but the alternative sounds even worse -- collapsing pension funds, failing banks, frozen credit and a flat economy.

Could it really be that bad? Cardoza is convinced it could be.

"On one call we had every Treasury secretary still alive, and they all are (speaking) as one on this," he said. "If we can't do this now, there really will be a global monetary crash."

There are several ideas for resolving this crisis. Most Democrats are insisting on a return to sanity through government oversight and greater transparency in financial transactions (such as outlawing any "financial instrument" that can't be explained to a fifth-grader). Others still believe that fewer regulations and more cuts in the capital gains tax will lead to prosperity.

We already tried that. When those quaint, Depression-era bank regulations were lifted in the late 1990s, investment bankers and financiers went to work creating vast wealth -- for themselves. Released from regulatory review, they invented property-financing schemes that they sold to willing victims. With Washington's help, Wall Street became a giant casino -- and now the bankers have crapped out.

As Cardoza put it, "The culture of greed is what got us into this mess."

What will get us out? Many Democrats support the bailout -- not for the bankers' sake, but in the interest of every person with a 401(k) or a pension or a student loan.

Maybe that's the best we can do. If so, there must be some righteous anger left for those who have profited at our expense. Let's hope it is expressed in rules and regulations that will keep this from happening again.

Dunbar is the associate editor of The Bee. Contact him at mdunbar@modbee.com or 578-2325.