Too much urgency, too few specifics

The rollout of the proposed $700 billion bailout package was accompanied by all of the least attractive characteristics of the Bush administration in action.

The package was sprung on Congress and the public suddenly and over a weekend and with a bare minimum of details. The initial proposal, vesting immense powers in Treasury secretary Henry Paulson, was only three pages.

And then, as it did with the Iraq war resolution, the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretapping, among others, the White House demanded that Congress act immediately, within the week, lest some apocalyptic fate — a mushroom cloud, a financial meltdown — befall the country.

The Bush administration is famously adverse to regulation and to having anyone look over its shoulder and the bailout package did not extend the government’s regulatory reach and, in its original version, had no provision for any congressional or independent oversight.

And it reflected the Bush White House’s view that executive branch powers should be largely unchecked. The initial draft would have made the bailout program immune from any challenge in the courts or by another federal agency.

Congress, showing that it has perhaps learned something over the last seven years, seems inclined to act expeditiously but also carefully. And if that care requires that the lawmakers postpone the time they can depart the capital to go home and campaign for reelection, so be it.

Treasury and the House and Senate banking committees have reached agreement on standing congressional oversight that we would like to see strengthened with the presence of federal officials and independent monitors.

We would also like to see guarantees of complete transparency with full disclosure of the debt Treasury is assuming and from whom, the nature and price of the debt, and the prospects for repayment.

The bailout package deals only with the crisis of the moment. It does nothing in the way of law and regulation to address the possibility of another financial meltdown once Wall Street, as it inevitably will, recovers its old swagger and overconfidence. That should be an early order of business for the new Congress.