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Venting their outrage, lawmakers are preparing to slap heavy taxes on employee bonuses at insurance giant AIG and at other companies that have received large bailout packages from the government.
The House was scheduled to vote Thursday on a bill that would levy a 90 percent tax on bonuses paid to employees with family incomes above $250,000 at companies that have received at least $5 billion in government bailout money.
"We figured that the local and state governments would take care of the other 10 percent," said Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee.
Rangel said the bill would apply to mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, among others, while excluding community banks and other smaller companies that have received less bailout money.
House Democratic leaders unveiled the bill as the head of embattled American International Group Inc., which has received $182 billion in bailout money, testified about $165 million in bonuses paid out in the past week to about 400 employees in its Financial Products unit.
Edward Liddy, who was brought in last year by the government to run AIG, told a House subcommittee Wednesday that the company was contractually obligated to pay the bonuses but that some of the recipients have begun returning all or part of them.
Liddy said that on Tuesday, he had "asked those who have received retention payments in excess of $100,000 or more to return at least half of those payments." Some have "already stepped forward and returned 100 percent," he added.
Lawmakers rushed to the microphones after word of the bonuses was leaked out by the government over the weekend. Bills were quickly drawn up in both the House and Senate to impose heavy new taxes on them.
The top two members of the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday announced a bill that would impose a 35 percent excise tax on the companies paying the bonuses and a 35 percent excise tax on the employees receiving them. The taxes would apply to all companies receiving government bailout money, but they are clearly geared toward AIG.
President Barack Obama, who took office just under two months ago, told reporters Wednesday that his administration was not responsible for a lack of federal supervision of AIG that preceded the company’s demise.
But Obama added, "The buck stops with me."
Obama said his administration was consulting with Congress on creating a new "resolution authority" to seize giant institutions like AIG — including all their toxic assets — whose collapse in normal bankruptcy could cause calamity in the financial markets.
Republicans have pointed their criticism at Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, questioning how much he know about the bonuses in advance and efforts by the administration to stop them. And they complained anew about being locked out of discussions earlier this year when Democrats decided to jettison a provision in the economic stimulus bill that would have revoked the payments.
"The fact is that the bill the president signed, which protected the AIG bonuses and others, was written behind closed doors by Democratic leaders of the House and Senate. There was no transparency," said Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.