Journalist Robert Kaiser Chronicles Financial Overhaul Bill
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In the fall of 2008, the U.S. economy was in freefall. The Bush administration was convinced that to prevent a complete financial collapse it had to inject massive amounts of government funds into the market. The tricky part: How to get Congress to go along?
ROBERT KAISER: Hank Paulson, the secretary of Treasury, was advised by one of his aides: You've just got to scare the blank out of them. And he did. But I think he believed it. He and Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Fed, were the scarers-in-chief on this occasion. But they believed that the country was really at the risk of a terrible calamity.
GREENE: That's veteran Washington Post journalist Robert Kaiser. He was given behind-the-scenes access to the two Democrats leading the charge to tackle the financial crisis on Capitol Hill, Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank and Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd.
NPR's Linda Wertheimer, a veteran congressional reporter, spoke to the author about his new book chronicling the year and a half it took to pass the Dodd-Frank bill into law. The book is called "Act of Congress: How America's Essential Institution Works, And How It Doesn't."
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Reading your book, this experience of covering something so closely - drawing back the veil the way you did - a recurring theme is so much of it seems random. So much of it is depending upon personalities and relationships. A lot of it is ugly. I think most of the people who read your book will think about this close personal look at the legislative process and think it's worse than I thought.
KAISER: As I say the end of the book, the system is broken. We have a huge change since the time you and I covered the Senate together in the '70s. In that day, policy was what animated most members of Congress and the big debates were about policy. Now politics dominates the Congress. Political warfare is constant. Partisan warfare is a daily game. And the number of members who really care about policy, and more important, who really know about policy, has radically diminished.
Today, if you we went out to Capitol Hill and did a poll - talked to every member we bumped into in the corridor -what's a derivative, we wouldn't get very many accurate answers.
And by and large, as the book reveals, the members leave it to the staff. I do think it's really important that your listeners understand that we had really, really bright people - mostly women, interestingly - who were the key staff, who did the key work.
WERTHEIMER: Now, the financial reform bill did pass and it did call for big changes in the way the financial industry in this country works. Was this bill, do you think, an example of - as you say in your subtitle, how Congress works or how it doesn't?
KAISER: Well, I'm saying in the book that is both, because it's not a pretty picture. It's not anything anyone would design as an ideal way to do this business, but it did work. The great crash created the fear that animated the members to do it. The fact that Barney Frank and Chris Dodd - two smart, experienced legislators who really knew how to play the game - turned up as the key players, that was just good luck. But it's a contest now, I think, between the people with a sense of responsibility and the ideologues.
WERTHEIMER: We have a lot of ideologically motivated members in both parties. Most Americans are not deeply ideological. And we're not good, those of us who aren't ideological, at coping with those who are, and accepting the fact that some of them are really prepared to put their doctrinal beliefs ahead of any practical consideration. But that's what we're coping with now and it's really hard.
Bob, thank you very much for coming in.
Thank you, Linda, very much.
GREENE: NPR's Linda Wertheimer speaking with veteran Washington Post journalist Robert Kaiser.