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The AIG hot potato

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–“The buck stops here” was one of President Harry Truman’s guiding principles. The 33rd President of the United States was so committed to the idea that he had a plaque adorned with the phrase placed on his desk in the Oval Office.

Truman’s motto was in direct response to another phrase — “passing the buck.”

The expression “pass the buck” is said to have its etymology rooted in the game of poker. A marker often was used during the play of this game to indicate whose turn it was to deal the cards. In frontier times a buck knife was often used as the marker. If a player did not want the responsibility of dealing, he or she would “pass the buck knife” to the next player.

Over time, “pass the buck” came to denote the act of passing blame or responsibility onto another person.

President Truman understood that leadership is the last stop on the line of accountability. A leader is ultimately responsible for the action or lack thereof of the organization he or she is called to lead. Leaders simply do not “pass the buck.”

Given the recent reaction of the elected officials in Washington D.C. over bonuses that have been paid to executives at AIG, it seems evident that there is a dearth of leadership in our nation’s capital.

Cries of outrage echoed through the halls of Congress when it came to light that insurance behemoth AIG, which received billions of dollars of bailout money from the federal government, was dolling out million dollar retention bonuses to several of its executives.

Senators, representatives and the president joined together signing a chorus of dismay, shock and anger. They could not believe that this was occurring. All confessed they did not know the stimulus bill would allow for such bonuses. Of course, those same members of Congress voted for the bailout, and the president signed it into law.

What seems clear, based on their reaction, is that the senators and representatives who voted for the bailout bill did so without really knowing fully what was in it. The same holds true for President Obama who signed it into law.

One member of Congress admitted during an interview on Fox News that he didn’t read the bill. His excuse: the urgency to pass the stimulus bill was so great that he did not have time adequately to go over it.

While those who voted in favor of the bail-out bill are attempting to “pass the buck,” in reality, since they voted on it, there is really no one to whom they can transfer responsibility. A few, like the congressman that appeared on Fox News, are trying to “pass the buck” to ignorance that was compounded by the urgency of the situation.

In an effort to make up for their mistake, members of Congress passed a law March 19 that will retroactively tax the AIG bonuses, in some cases up to 90 percent. In essence, elected officials are shifting the blame to some AIG employees for taking bonuses that were written into their contracts way before the stimulus bill was ever a thought in a congressional mind.

Some suggest the lawmakers’ effort to punish AIG employees is unconstitutional based on a provision in Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution which states, “No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed.” Which means no law shall be passed to criminalize or punish actions after the fact.

While it remains to be seen if the tax-punishment bill will be challenged in court, it is very clear that Washington has a problem. Rather than have “the buck” stop somewhere, members of Congress, who voted for the stimulus package, are content to toss responsibility around like it was a hot potato.

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things,” management guru Peter Drucker once observed. Based on the recent bailout bonus debacle at AIG, it seems Washington D.C. is not only suffering from a dearth of leaders, but there also seems to be a lack of competent managers as well.
Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

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  • Kelly Boggs