Dodd Blames Obama Administration for Bonus Amendment
By Ryan J. Donmoyer
March 19 (Bloomberg) -- Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd said the Obama administration asked him to insert a provision in last month’s $787 billion economic-stimulus legislation that had the effect of authorizing American International Group Inc.’s bonuses.
Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, said yesterday he agreed to modify restrictions on executive pay at companies receiving taxpayer assistance to exempt bonuses already agreed upon in contracts. He said he did so without realizing the change would benefit AIG, whose recent $165 million payment to employees has sparked a public furor.
Dodd said he had wanted to limit executive compensation at companies that got money from the government’s financial-rescue fund. AIG has received $173 billion in bailout money. His provision was changed as the stimulus legislation was negotiated between the House and Senate.
“I did not want to make any changes to my original Senate-passed amendment” to the stimulus bill, “but I did so at the request of administration officials, who gave us no indication that this was in any way related to AIG,” Dodd said in a statement released last night. “Let me be clear -- I was completely unaware of these AIG bonuses until I learned of them last week.” He didn’t name the administration officials who made the request.
An administration official said last night that representatives of President Barack Obama didn’t insist on the change, though they did contend that the language in Dodd’s amendment could be legally challenged because it would apply retroactively to bonus agreements. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity.
That provision in the stimulus bill may undercut complaints by congressional Democrats about the AIG bonuses because most of them voted for the legislation. No Republicans in the House and only three in the Senate supported the stimulus measure.
“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,” said Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House.
The new law, approved by Congress Feb. 13 and signed into law by Obama the next week, effectively authorized bonus arrangements at companies receiving taxpayer bailouts as long as they were in place before Feb. 11. The AIG bonuses qualified under that provision.
Obama and many lawmakers who voted for the legislation, such as Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, are demanding AIG employees surrender their bonuses.
Schumer yesterday sent a letter to AIG Chief Executive Officer Edward Liddy warning him to return bonuses or face confiscatory taxes on them. The letter was signed by Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, and seven other senators.
Brian Fallon, a spokesman for Schumer, said the senator “supported a provision on the Senate floor that would have prevented these types of bonuses, but he was not on the conference committee that negotiated the final language.”
A House vote is planned for today on a bill to impose a 90 percent tax on executive bonuses paid by AIG and other companies getting more than $5 billion in federal bailout funds.
“I expect it to pass in overwhelmingly bipartisan fashion,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, told reporters yesterday in Washington.
Republicans seized on the provision in the stimulus bill to paint Democrats as hypocrites.
“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,” Iowa Senator Charles Grassley said in a statement.
AIG donated a total of $854,905 to political campaigns in 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group. AIG employees as a group represent Dodd’s fourth-biggest donor during his career, the group’s research shows. The company’s political action committee, employees and immediate family members have given Dodd more than $280,000, the group said.
Dodd said the provision was written to give the Treasury Department enough discretion to reclaim bonuses as necessary.
“Fortunately, we wrote this amendment in a way that allows the Treasury Department to go back and review these bonus contracts and seek to recover the money for taxpayers,” he said.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told lawmakers in a letter this week that department lawyers believe it would be “legally difficult” to prevent AIG from paying bonuses.
Other Democrats who voted for the stimulus bill have ramped up criticism of AIG’s bonuses, including Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, who told reporters, “I think the time has come to exercise our ownership rights.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Ryan J. Donmoyer in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org