AIG, Labor, and the Sanctity of Contracts

Today’s main columnist in the New York Times business section, Andrew Ross Sorkin, echoes the comments Larry Summers made on TV this weekend with regard to the AIG bonuses and the sanctity of contracts. Sorkin quotes Obama: “[The issue of AIG bonuses] isn’t just a matter of dollars and cents. It’s about our fundamental values.” Sorkin goes on:

On that last issue, lawyers, Wall Street types and compensation consultants agree with the president. But from their point of view, the “fundamental value” in question here is the sanctity of contracts.

That may strike many people as a bit of convenient legalese, but maybe there is something to it. If you think this economy is a mess now, imagine what it would look like if the business community started to worry that the government would start abrogating contracts left and right.

As much as we might want to void those A.I.G. pay contracts, Pearl Meyer, a compensation consultant at Steven Hall & Partners, says it would put American business on a worse slippery slope than it already is. Business agreements of other companies that have taken taxpayer money might fall into question. Even companies that have not turned to Washington might seize the opportunity to break inconvenient contracts.

Sorkin frets about whether government “abrogating contracts left and right” would lead companies to break contracts willy nilly. But it’s more about the government, and companies, breaking contracts left, but not right. As Ali Frick points out at Think Progress, companies already seize opportunities to break inconvenient contracts—with unions. And the government, egged on by the right-wing, encouraged them to do so:

Yesterday on ABC’s This Week, Larry Summers, head of President Obama’s National Economic Council, called insurance giant AIG’s plan to pay out $165 million in bonuses “outrageous” but insisted there was little the government could do about it. This despite the $170 billion in taxpayer funds that have been given to AIG. Summers cited the sanctity of contracts:
SUMMERS: We are a country of law. There are contracts. The government cannot just abrogate contracts. Every legal step possible to limit those bonuses is being taken by Secretary Geithner and by the Federal Reserve system.

Summers said that efforts by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner had successfully “scaled back” the bonuses, but AIG chief Edward Liddy, defending the bonuses, told Geithner, “quite frankly, AIG’s hands are tied.”

Of course, not all contracts are sacrosanct. When Detroit’s Big Three arrived in Washington last year to plead for federal bailout funds, the right wing demanded that the United Auto Workers ignore their contracts and accept “steep cuts in pay and benefits”—on top of the cuts they already shouldered in 2007. The UAW agreed to “make major concessions in its contracts,” acceding to most of the right’s demands:

UAW President Ron Gettelfinger emerged from the meeting to say the union would rework a retiree health care trust fund, eliminate the union’s maligned jobs bank program…and cut additional measures that would loosen the union’s trademark job-security protections.

Along with other commenters, the American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner pointed out the government’s double standard on contracts, telling George Stephanopoulos yesterday, “You don’t think when the auto workers come in as part of the auto rescue deal, they’re not being asked to abrogate contracts? Of course they are.”

The Obama administration also supports rewriting mortgage contracts. It “has moved aggressively to pressure lenders to renegotiate the terms of mortgages,” and Obama supports an idea to allow bankruptcy judges to change the terms of a mortgage to help homeowners stay afloat.

To his credit, Obama today ordered Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner “to use that leverage and pursue every single legal avenue to block these bonuses.” But it’s still clear that while workers’ contractual benefits can be eviscerated in the name of bailout eligibility, millionaire bankers’ bonuses are a more sacrosanct part of “a country of law” where “there are contracts.”

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