One phrase surfaced over and over during Wednesday´s House Financial Services Committee hearing on Tarp accountability: "Money is fungible."
Members of the committee pressed the CEOs of the eight biggest U.S. banks for more information on how they spent the government funds they received from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and many were satisfied with the executives´ replies that the billions they received were used for lending and "safety and soundness." But the nagging phrase remained, and late in the afternoon Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., took a firm grip on it for his assault on bank lobbying.
He argued that since "money is fungible," the giant cash infusions banks received couldn´t be seen as isolated in one area of the banks´ spending. Therefore, all of the banks´ activities could theoretically have been funded by government aid. He asked Bank of America chief executive Ken Lewis about the Financial Services Roundtable´s opposition to a proposed bill that would make it easier for workers to unionize.
Rep. Ellison cited a report in which FSR´s president Steve Bartlett was heard on an audio tape disparaging the bill in question, the Employee Free Choice Act. (The FSR has taken heat for this; the organization cancelled a trip to Florida after union-affiliated lobbyists complained of wretched excess).
"I don´t go to the Roundtable," Mr. Lewis replied.
Rep. Ellison asked whether it didn´t seem unethical to Mr. Lewis that his bank should support a lobbying group opposing workers´ rights during the economic crisis.
Mr. Lewis replied, "I think it's always right to do what's best for your company."
The exchange, choppy and confused as it was, showed that responsibility, too, is fungible.