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Commentary: End bailouts before they devour economy

  • Story Highlights
  • Jared Polis: He says Congress engaged in a spectacle of anger at AIG bonuses
  • Frothing House members are echoing frothing constituents, Polis says
  • He says it's an example of the harm bailouts can do to private enterprise
  • AIG problem pales in comparison to legacy of the Iraq war and its huge cost, he says
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By Jared Polis
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat, represents Colorado's 2nd District in Congress and is appearing in CNN.com's "Freshman Year" series along with Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah.

Rep. Jared Polis says the AIG and GM cases show the risks of bailing out failing businesses.

Rep. Jared Polis says the AIG and GM cases show the risks of bailing out failing businesses.

(CNN) -- America has a new national pastime, CEO hunting, that has driven the House floor into a frenzied free-for-all as members vie to one-up each other in placing blame and pointing fingers.

Frothing members are echoing frothing constituents, and all sides are demanding flesh.

Last week, we in the House passed a 90 percent tax on $160 million in bonuses that government-owned AIG paid to executives, including some of the very executives who caused it to fail. This week, the ax fell on GM's CEO Rick Wagoner, as President Obama acted on his promise to boldly restructure the American auto industry.

In both cases, everyone is seeking to avoid blame and only occasionally trying to solve the problem. The power to tax is the power to destroy. Whether it's taxing AIG bonuses or ousting auto executives, we must end this bailout bonanza before it takes over our entire economy. Executives and boards of private companies now know that calling in the federal cavalry to their rescue is a double-edged sword.

The entire mess reminds me of the tale of Emperor Alexius I of Byzantine Empire, who called forth the Christian kings of Western Europe to help him hold off the Turks at his gates.

"Help us," he said. "Prevent the heathens from taking the Holy Land." The Christian kings of the West responded in force. At first the Crusades served Alexius' goals. "Bonuses" went out: the taking of Antioch and of Jerusalem.

But with time, many crusaders saw a richer and easier target in Constantinople itself, and soon, the very forces that Alexius called upon for aid set out to loot his own capital, thus hastening the demise of the Byzantine Empire.

Caveat emptor -- let the buyer, banker or Chevy Suburban maker beware: You do not want the federal government or the American people owning your companies!

We will hunt down your executives with pitchforks in hand. We will subpoena your boards and haul you before Congress.

We will use every rhetorical device known to Cato and Kennedy to decry your greed. And this cruelty is not for your executives alone -- your workers will be bureaucratized, your work hours extended and your competent managers squeezed out. Travel and year-end bonuses -- forget about 'em. In short, the private enterprise, which you devised and built up with your own blood, sweat and tears, will cease to exist.

I hope the CEO hunt serves as a siren call to executives, shareholders and workers to oppose nationalization of more companies. Better to let your companies die quietly than to call forth "the crusaders" of Washington, who would loot and pillage your company, even as the Christian crusaders that Alexius I summoned went on to loot the center of Eastern Christendom itself.

Businesses have no place being "too big to fail." These companies should have spun-off divisions and downsized long ago. Under the thumb of governmental control, they stand only to suffer in a public purgatory, wherein nothing goes unquestioned and they are forced to answer to the harshest of all critics, the American people.

That said, with all the railing against a few greedy executives, it's easy to forget that our nation and thousands of our troops are at war.

March 19 -- the day of the great AIG debate -- marked the sixth anniversary of the war in Iraq. I feel so let down that our nation was misled into entering this unjust war under false pretenses. Here at home, it's easy to get preoccupied with our own problems, be it losing a job or the bonuses wrongly paid to the AIG executives.

We must cannot forget that we still have more than 100,000 of our sisters and brothers serving in Iraq, and thousands more in Afghanistan. We're so preoccupied that it's easy to forget the reality on the ground in Iraq; a young boy, only 12 years old when this war began, now serves in Iraq. We've been in this war longer than our nation was in World War II, and we have little progress to show for it.

I frequently refer to Iraq Today, a Web site that compiles reported security incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the site, an Iraqi politician was assassinated, a magnetic bomb targeting a police officer's car exploded in a residential neighborhood, two Iraqi Interior Ministry personnel were shot and wounded by unknown gunmen, a roadside bomb wounded two civilians when it struck a U.S. patrol, and countless civilians fell victim to needless violence across Iraq -- all on March 19.

When I was running for office last year, I endorsed the "Responsible Plan" to end the war in Iraq.

Several fellow freshman members, including Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Maryland), Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Florida), Rep. Eric Massa (D-New York), Tom Perriello (D-Virginia) and Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), endorsed the plan as well.

With Operation Desert Storm veteran Massa temporarily presiding as Speaker, I reiterated our call to responsibly leave Iraq during "special orders" on the House floor. ("Special orders" are opportunities for members of the House of Representatives to speak informally before or after general debate, sometimes for extended periods of time on virtually any topic the member chooses.)

Getting back our $160,000,000 paid out to AIG execs is relatively easy. We will never get back a penny of the $1.3 trillion spent on the Iraq war, and more importantly, we will never get back a single one of the 4,200 plus Americans and as many as a million Iraqis who died in this unjust and unnecessary war.

If our country is to advance, let it be upon the legs of lessons well-learned. We can no more condone the wastefulness of self-serving company executives than we can the sacrifice of the lives of our citizens in a senseless war. Indeed, my anger and indignation are directed at the latter, which dwarfs the former.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jared Polis.

All About American International Group Inc.Iraq WarNational Economy

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