Special Interests or the Common Good?

[In my last column], I said passing a “sensible, effective finance reform bill” is a “moral and economic imperative.” The lack of moral restraints, which has turned financial markets into a kind of casino, has made regulation necessary and politically inevitable.

But the question is: What kind of regulation?

The Senate hearing involving Goldman Sachs didn’t inspire much confidence. There were the pontificating senators, who were among those who, stuffing campaign contributions in their pockets from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, in turn pumped all the money into those agencies which created the crisis Wall Street exploited.

Watching the hearing, I wanted to scream, “A plague on both your houses!” And when the various sweetheart deals in the finance reform bill came to light, I became disgusted. Between Democratic Senator Nelson’s attempt to aid billionaire Warren Buffet and Republican Senator Corker’s bid to protect payday lenders, I concluded that it was “business as usual” on Capitol Hill.

But then something started to change. There has been some tentative progress toward a decent bill. Whether out of embarrassment or wisdom, the Senate scrapped the Warren Buffet deal. The permanent $50 billion bailout for banks and underwater businesses—an absolutely awful idea that will simply provide a tax-funded safety net for irresponsible behavior—may be on the ropes as well.

It looks like, just maybe, what’s good for the country is starting to drive the debate. If so, the disgust that most Americans feel at the actions of our elites may have finally had an effect.

So, what’s next? As I record this, nobody knows what the final bill will look like—it’s over a thousand pages to read. But as Phillip Swagel wrote in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, there will be a lot of amendments to the bill over the next few days. Getting rid of that bailout fund is the place to start.

One thing we know for sure: Just like the health care bill, the finance reform bill will be monstrously long and filled with all kinds of pitfalls that nobody can anticipate. That’s good news for the lobbyists, not for the public.

Americans are angry over the malfeasance of our political and financial elites. In the short run, this anger can motivate our leaders to do the right thing. But if they don’t, the present dissatisfaction will continue to boil and turn into cynicism, which would only strengthen the hand of special interests and elites.

I talked on BreakPoint recently about Augustine’s City of God. It got me reflecting on the Christian roots of our political order—from representative democracy to the balance of powers, to the respect for human dignity and the rule of law.

We Christians must hold our leaders to these high standards. As Augustine wrote, we must seek the welfare of the city—or, in this case, country—where God has placed us. We need to pray that both houses of Congress will do the right thing by the country.

And when the debate is over, I’d like to say we saw Congress embrace reform that reflects the best of our democratic and biblical heritage—creating a financial environment where the poor are not exploited but may “glean” from the fields, as the Scripture says; where merchants use honest scales; and where justice prevails, yes, “rolls down like living waters.”

All for the sake of the common good and what the Hebrews called shalom—the necessary condition for human flourishing.

We Christians know one thing. Our job is clear. As good citizens, we are supposed to insist upon righteousness in the halls of power.

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