Reporter's Notebook: Bernanke, Paulson Get Crash Course in Hill Etiquette

Actions speak louder than words. And that was never more evident than Thursday night on Capitol Hill.

A grim-looking Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson showed up that evening to huddle with congressional leaders in the speaker’s office about the looming financial crisis. They asked for legislation that would give them sweeping powers to stem the country’s economic losses.

Bernanke is practically a sphinx. He doesn’t say much, particularly to the press, because billions could be made or lost on every syllable he utters.

Still, I confronted him as he strode by the House chamber en route to the conclave.

“No comment” was all I got. And when the principals did address the press, Bernanke curbed his remarks to just 33 words.

But the actions of Paulson and Bernanke have caused congressional leaders to grumble about their own lack of involvement, even as many acknowledge that the bold steps the Bush administration prescribes probably must be taken.

And this sensitive landscape awaits the duo as they push forward their rescue plan in the coming days.

Understandably, the Capitol has grown increasingly jumpy and agitated over the past week.

Lawmakers were still reeling from the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac turmoil, when news of AIG teetering on the brink spurred a 500-point sell off Monday.

Capitol Hill grew nearly apoplectic Tuesday night when Treasury informed them they’d soon purchase 80 percent of AIG because it was “too big to fail.”

First, they demanded to know why Congress had been cut out of its oversight role of the executive branch. Especially for such an extraordinary deal. House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass, understood why the administration snapped up AIG. But with a nod to Clayton Moore and old-time radio serials, Frank rhetorically asked "Who was that masked man?"

“Here comes over the horizon the 'Loan Arranger' (Bernanke) and his faithful companion Paulson,” thundered Frank. “They’re good guys. But that’s not how it should be.”

I frankly can’t imagine Bernanke aboard “a fiery horse with the speed of light.” But with money flowing out of the Treasury, it certainly does bring new meaning to the phrase “Hi-yo, Silver, away!”

Not to be outdone, conservatives, like Rep. Jimmy Duncan, R-Tenn., wanted to know why Treasury would buy AIG and let Lehman Brothers fail.

“It’s picking and choosing,” Duncan told me. “It was big government that got us into this mess. And now they say more government is going to get us out of it? It won’t work.”

Congressional leaders felt shunned by Bernanke and Paulson. But Thursday night’s meeting helped mend bridges with the administration. That was essential to move any sort of legislation expeditiously.

Plus Bernanke was a little more direct during a private telephone conference with House Republicans Friday. Sources inside the meeting told me that Bernanke informed the GOP this was the “most-severe post-war” financial crisis facing the United States.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., conceded the duo needed a crash course in “Legislative Action Parliamentary Procedure 101.”

“We’ve explained to them how things work on Capitol Hill,” said Reid. “They work differently than downtown.”

But Bernanke and Paulson still haven’t made inroads with conservatives.

Some Republicans have had it. Congressional conservatives have endured staggering earmarks and Bridges to Nowhere. Profligate spending. A burgeoning government. Now comes intervention in the country’s financial sector not seen since the Great Depression.

Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., declared that “instead of celebrating the Fourth of July next year, Americans will be celebrating Bastille Day. The free market for all intents and purposes is dead.”

Bunning went on to say the country has entered the realm of socialism.

Just a few years ago, President Bush rode high on Capitol Hill. With former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill, and Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, there was little Bush could ask for and not receive. Now his administration’s wrangling with the very conservatives that once composed his base.

I heard from multiple sources that the White House called Capitol Hill Thursday morning, begging them to halt a press conference called by conservatives to decry bailouts. But to no avail.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the most conservative bloc of GOPers in the House, said the U.S. was in the middle of what he called “bailout mania.”

“Enough is enough,” he said.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. likened it to watching “Survivor.”

“Who can remain standing as a free-market enterprise?” she asked.

Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn., wondered aloud who the government might next declare as too big to fail.

“Starbucks?” she asked, drawing a laugh. “Pretty soon we’ll open up the cash drawer and feathers will come flying out.”

I was waiting for Bachmann, Blackburn and Hensarling to lock arms and start a kick-line while singing “We’d Like To Thank You Herbert Hoover” from “Annie.”

Saturday afternoon, the Republican Study Committee met by phone and conceded that the financial crisis bill would likely pass. But they worried that the GOP leadership signed on too quickly. And they expressed concern that the package might help Wall Street but not Main Street. They’ve vowed to put together an alternative bill that would achieve spending cuts to help the little guy.

But there’s not much conservatives can do to stop this legislative train. Congressional leaders insist they need to approve it by the end of next week.

An historic presidential vote is just six weeks away. Yet the Barack Obama-John McCain contest might not even be the story of the year.

“And we all thought Bush’s legacy was going to be what he left us with in Iraq,” a House conservative muttered to me a few days ago.

Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s the recipient of an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan S. Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.