The Obama administration is engineering its new bailout initiatives in a way that it believes will allow firms benefiting from the programs to avoid restrictions imposed by Congress, including limits on lavish executive pay, according to government officials.
Administration officials have concluded that this approach is vital for persuading firms to participate in programs funded by the $700 billion financial rescue package.
The administration believes it can sidestep the rules because, in many cases, it has decided not to provide federal aid directly to financial companies, the sources said. Instead, the government has set up special entities that act as middlemen, channeling the bailout funds to the firms and, via this two-step process, stripping away the requirement that the restrictions be imposed, according to officials.
Although some experts are questioning the legality of this strategy, the officials said it gives them latitude to determine whether firms should be subject to the congressional restrictions, which would require recipients to turn over ownership stakes to the government, as well as curb executive pay.
The administration has decided that the conditions should not apply in at least three of the five initiatives funded by the rescue package.
This strategy has so far attracted little scrutiny on Capitol Hill, and even some senior congressional aides dealing with the financial crisis said they were unaware of the administration's efforts. Just two weeks ago, Congress erupted in outrage over bonuses being paid at American International Group, with some lawmakers faulting the administration for failing to do more to safeguard taxpayers' interests.
Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the congressional conditions should apply to any firm benefiting from bailout funds. He said he planned to review the administration's decisions and might seek to undo them. "We have to make certain that if they are using government money in any sort of way, there should be restrictions," he said.
A Treasury spokesman defended the approach. "These programs are designed to both comply with the law and ensure taxpayers' funds are used most effectively to bring about economic recovery," spokesman Andrew Williams said.
In one program, designed to restart small-business lending, President Obama's officials are planning to set up a middleman called a special-purpose vehicle -- a term made notorious during the Enron scandal -- or another type of entity to evade the congressional mandates, sources familiar with the matter said.
In another program, which seeks to restart consumer lending, a special entity was created largely for the separate purpose of getting around legal limits on the Federal Reserve, which is helping fund this initiative. The Fed does not ordinarily provide support for the markets that finance credit cards, auto loans and student loans but could channel the funds through a middleman.
At first, when the initiative was being developed last year, the Bush administration decided to apply executive-pay limits to firms participating in this program. But Obama officials reversed that decision days before it was unveiled on March 3 and lifted the curbs, according to sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions were private.
Obama's team is also planning to exempt financial firms that participate in a program designed to find private investors to buy the distressed assets on the books of banks. But Treasury officials are still examining the legal basis for doing so. Congress has exempted the Treasury from applying the restrictions in a fourth program, which aids lenders who modify mortgages for struggling homeowners.