Last week, in an obscure subcommittee hearing, a senior Treasury official professed ignorance when asked by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D, Md.) about $165 million that AIG paid in employee retention bonuses as it was raking in billions in TARP funds from Uncle Sam. The story had not yet made the rounds on the news.
But it was not long before everyone was railing against them. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D, N.Y.) suggested a 100 percent tax on them. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R, Iowa) suggested in jest that AIG execs commit hara-kiri. Even President Obama got into the act, affecting outrage over them before delivering yesterday’s speech on small businesses.
But why is Obama so outraged and surprised? Today we learn that he signed the very bill that quite clearly made those bonuses legal — the $787 billion stimulus package he had traveled around the nation promoting. The bill includes restrictions on executive compensation, but creates an exception for bonuses contractually obligated before February 11 of this year. The provision, and the exception, were inserted into the bill by the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Chris Dodd (D, Conn.), who has received more than $100,000 from AIG employees in the last 20 years, had written and inserted the relevant provision, with the relevant loophole. How can he, the president, or anyone else who voted for the stimulus, suddenly act surprised? Don’t tell us they didn’t read the bill.
House Republicans are already calling for a return of the money, and holding a press conference. Here is the statement from House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R, Va.) from this afternoon.
“Today, news reports reveal that a last minute provision in the stimulus bill inserted by Democrats protected bonuses like those received by AIG executives. Taxpayers deserve better than this from their government, and this is just the latest reason why legislation must be transparent for all Americans to see before it is recklessly signed into law.”
UPDATE: Here is the loophole, from the section of the stimulus package that deals with compensation rules for TARP recipients:
The prohibition required under clause (i) shall not be construed to prohibit any bonus payment required to be paid pursuant to a written employment contract executed on or before February 11, 2009, as such valid employment contracts are determined by the Secretary or the designee of the Secretary.
Frankly, it’s hard to imagine how the government could prevent such contracts from being honored. But the presence of this loophole, in black and white, certainly gives the lie to all of this phony outrage — by the senator who created the loophole, by the president who signed it into law, and by everyone else who voted for the stimulus package.