STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.
NPR: transformative, historic, turning point. Economists, banking experts, lawyers, they all say the same thing. The U.S. financial system, American capitalism, has changed. We don't yet know exactly how, but the role the U.S. government plays in the economy has changed. We asked NPR's Adam Davidson to give us some perspective on what that means.
ADAM DAVIDSON: So, what's the big deal? Some broke banks get some money from the government. Oh, it's a big deal. I was trying to find someone to be a bit moderate for this story, just to say that the bailout bill is a big deal but not that big a deal. I couldn't find any expert to say anything less than this is the biggest thing that has happened to the U.S. financial system since - OK, here's where you get the disagreement. Some say it's the biggest thing since the Great Depression, others simply say it's the biggest thing to ever happen to the U.S. financial system.
SCOTT TALBOTT: This is the Super Bowl and New Year's Eve all rolled into one. And so, this major change - and this is a watershed, this is historic, this is extraordinary - will happen this week.
DAVIDSON: That's Scott Talbott. He's one of the lead lobbyists for the nation's major financial institutions. So, of course, this is a big deal for him. I also talked to John Macy, a professor at Yale Law School.
JOHN MACY: This is probably the most important issue that's ever come up in my lifetime. Usually, academics deal with, kind of, you know, how many angels are dancing on the head of the pin. But this in one fell swoop is going to fundamentally reorder the economy, change relationships between the private sector and government, and also is going to create an entirely new economic model for financial institutions.
DAVIDSON: Leave aside the fact that this week's legislation will define much of our economy for decades. Macy says the president's bill includes the largest transfer of power from Congress to the administration he has ever seen, more than the Patriot Act, more than war powers.
MACY: Imagine you're going to a partner you've been working with the last 200 years, 250 years. And you say, well, I'm not going to fire you. You still have your job. You can still be called Congress. But you don't have any more power.
DAVIDSON: Macy doesn't like much at all about the president's bill. Too much power, no possibility of congressional or judicial review. Banking lobbyist Scott Talbott was still trying to get his head around all the details.
TALBOTT: Oh, wow! The bill sunsets on December 31, 2009.
DAVIDSON: Yesterday, events were so fast-moving that a bit of history came across his email inbox while we were talking. It was Senator Chris Dodd's bill, a counter to the president's. Dodd's bill would hurl the banking industry in some totally new, but equally dramatic, direction. For example, it would effectively put the U.S. government in the banking business. It would require the Treasury secretary...
TALBOTT: To take an ownership in the entity if it purchased assets from them.
DAVIDSON: Do you like that or you don't?
TALBOTT: We don't necessarily - we don't have a position at this point.
DAVIDSON: You're saying we don't have a position at this point because you literally just read the bill?
TALBOTT: I literally just got it seconds ago.
DAVIDSON: While we were on the phone.
TALBOTT: Exactly, exactly.
DAVIDSON: Talbott told me that he's got an office filled with lawyers and accountants reading these bills and figuring out what parts are good for the financial industry and which parts they should fight.
TALBOTT: This is the bill on everybody's desk right now.
DAVIDSON: Normally, this is a process that would take...
TALBOTT: Months, years.
DAVIDSON: Months and years?
TALBOTT: It has happened over the course of a weekend.
DAVIDSON: I should note Talbott and most banking lobbyists really like the president's bill. They just want it passed as is. What they don't like are many of the things the Democrats propose, like a salary cap for bank executives. You take the bailout, you don't get to walk away with a huge payday. That's a big issue for Talbott in part because Talbott's bosses are a bunch of banking executives.
Here are just some of the issues being decided right now in Washington. What's the role of the government in an economy? What does the U.S. owe to foreigners who lend us money? How can banks be regulated to prevent systemic crises? How much power should the president have, and how much should stay in Congress? It's a lot of big questions. But, hey, Congress and the administration gave themselves until Friday to figure it all out. Adam Davidson, NPR News, New York.
: For much more coverage of the ongoing crisis, including straight-forward, clear explanations, go to NPR's "Planet Money" blog and podcast at npr.org/money.