Rep. Mary Fallin will never forget standing on the floor of the House late last September after lawmakers had voted against a $700-billion bailout of the nation’s financial industry.
"My heart was racing,” she said last week.
The stock market was in free-fall. In just minutes after the vote, the Dow had lost nearly 700 points. By the end of the day, Sept. 29, 2008, it had plunged a record 777 points.
Fallin, R-Oklahoma City, voted against the bailout and, after the stunning rejection of the money, she stood thinking that "people are losing their money, their savings and investments.”
Like other lawmakers, Fallin had been warned that the financial system was in peril, that credit was drying up for businesses and consumers.
"I talked to (Oklahoma) bankers who were all convinced that disaster was just right around the corner,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore. "Banks weren’t loaning each other money; ATMs might close down overnight.”
Cole said he envisioned "cataclysmic economic conditions happening to my state and my country and the entire planet.”
Cole voted for the bailout that day, as did Rep. Dan Boren, D-Muskogee. Reps. Frank Lucas, R-Cheyenne, and John Sullivan, R-Tulsa, joined Fallin in voting against it.
But four days later, after the Senate had approved the bailout bill, Fallin and Sullivan and many other lawmakers switched their votes, and the House passed the bill overwhelmingly. Former President George W. Bush signed it immediately.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, who supported the action, said last week, "I think we stopped what was getting ready to be a horrendous, terrible situation. It wasn’t a fun vote. But I’d hate to see what would have happened if we hadn’t done that.”
A year after that dramatic period in the nation’s history, Oklahoma lawmakers on both sides of the issue said they don’t regret their votes.
Though the five Oklahomans who supported the bailout said they are upset that money wound up being used to help car companies and other entities that weren’t part of the original concept, they still think the action was necessary to head off what might have been a full-blown depression.
"Unemployment would have been a lot worse,” Boren said. "You would have seen a lot more banks fail.”
Said Sullivan, "The financial rescue package was a bitter pill to swallow. However at that time something had to be done to protect the economic future of every single American. Unfortunately, the administration failed to implement the transparency and accountability necessary to ensure that every dime of these funds were used for their intended purpose.”
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, and Rep. Lucas, who opposed the bailout from beginning to the end, said they still believe Congress was wrong to give almost unlimited authority to the Treasury Department and no guarantees to the American taxpayers.
"It was the way the bill was put together — I couldn’t get past that,” said Lucas, a senior member of the House Financial Services Committee. "The devil is in the details and I get paid to worry about the details.”
To Lucas and Inhofe, there weren’t enough details provided.
"Never in the history of America has a huge chunk of money been given to a bureaucrat with no accountability,” Inhofe said last week.
Former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulsen claimed then that the money would be used to buy up toxic assets at financial institutions, freeing them up to lend money. Ultimately, Lucas recalled, Paulsen decided he didn’t have time to create a separate government entity to deal with the toxic assets, and he just injected the money directly into banks.
"I know the secretary wanted the money bad enough to embellish the situation. The lion’s share of that money went to his golfing buddies when he was an investment banker,” Lucas said.
Inhofe dismissed the argument that approving the funds helped avert a melt-down in the financial industry.
"I don’t think it had an effect on it,” he said.
Cole said no one will ever know what would have happened if the bailout’s opponents had prevailed.
"You don’t get to rewind history and say, ‘OK, let’s go back and do it your way and see what will happen,’” Cole said.
Said Coburn, "I only got one vote. It was yes or no. You had two bad choices.”
Boren said, "The easy vote was a no vote.”
The Oklahoma lawmakers, like their colleagues from other states, were being deluged with phone calls, e-mails and letters from their constituents, most of them strongly against a plan viewed as a bailout of reckless Wall Street bankers.
The populist outcry on display at town hall meetings this summer may have started with that vote, said some lawmakers.
"The bailout started the anger,” Boren said. "But it’s not just the bailout; it’s adding up everything. They’re worried about the economy just in general. They’re concerned about spending.”
But Boren said the economy wouldn’t have stabilized without the bailout.
"I had to make the right call for the country.”