The lame-duck Congress is expected to reconvene next week with a bid to help the ailing Detroit automakers, and lawmakers are weighing initiatives that could provide as much as $50 billion in new assistance.
With its stock battered and its market capitalization down to World War II levels, General Motors is warning that without government aid it could run out of cash this year.
The Bush administration has declined to lead any rescue of GM, Chrysler and Ford. However, the Democrats who control both chambers of Congress are readying plans that seek to lend a hand to the once-proud manufacturers. The three carmakers employ more than 200,000 people directly and sustain nearly 3 million more indirectly, according to a recent study by the Center for Automotive Research.
Lawmakers are expected to convene in a special session, probably Tuesday, to consider three possible approaches, which would:
Modify an existing loan made in September. Congress approved a $25 billion loan then to help automakers build more fuel-efficient cars, but companies have had difficulty getting the money because of sticky federal rules. Lawmakers plan to urge the administration to make the process easier.
Make it easier to tap the financial rescue package. The $700 billion rescue plan that passed Oct. 3 is intended to help financial institutions. That means the carmakers' financing arms could qualify but not the manufacturing end. Congress will look at ways to modify the rescue plan's terms, with an eye to providing $25billion of it to the auto companies.
Help carmakers with health and pension obligations. Under the most controversial idea being floated, the firms would get $25 billion to help pay the rising costs associated with 780,000 retired autoworkers and their families. The United Auto Workers is pushing this idea.
No decisions have been made, and the principal players are saying nothing publicly. Lawmakers are beginning to take sides, though.
Skeptics, largely Republican lawmakers, are concerned about the price tag and the implications of rewarding a sector that's suffering from previous bad decisions. That reward is something economists call moral hazard: If government bails out businesses that make bad decisions, it encourages others not to fear risk, and thus to act recklessly.
“I'm trying to focus on the moral hazard,” said Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., a member of the House Financial Services Committee. He and others also are concerned that helping the automakers will encourage every business that's having trouble to ask Congress for aid.
“Does it end with manufacturing? What about retail? What about Circuit City?” asked Rep. Spencer Bachus of Alabama, the committee's top Republican. The chain filed for bankruptcy Monday.
Supporters of aid to the auto industry say that without help, however, major automakers could go bankrupt by the end of the year. The impact on the upper Midwest could be comparable to a Hurricane Katrina.