By all accounts Bush administration’s Troubled Asset Relief Program or TARP represents an unprecedented grant of discretion to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. The program’s trajectory suggests Congress may not be inclined to follow the precedent in the future. Skepticism abounds:  Early oversight by GAO and Elizabeth Warren’s oversight panel have yielded an unflattering portrait – claiming lack of transparency and weak internal controls, the program has been buffeted by distributional conflict (who wins, automakers or insurers?), Heritage doesn’t like it one bit, and now controversy over a loophole in the executive pay provisions. Bush and Paulson may find solace that early bailout hero Prime Minister “Flash” Gordon Brown has also come under growing criticism. The New York Times:

Gordon Brown’s plan to rescue British banks slowed a growing crisis of confidence and became a model for the rest of the world, including the United States. The British prime minister’s apparent initial success led some newspapers to christen him Flash Gordon, in honor of his alacrity and vision in facing the banking crisis.

But less than two months later, the plan is attracting mounting criticism from lenders, economists and opposition politicians for failing to fix the credit markets. And Mr. Brown himself acknowledged as much last week when he said the government was working on a “second stage” of the banking rescue.

The first stage failed to thaw credit markets. Despite giving billions of pounds to banks, in exchange for shares, the government has been unable to prevent banks from hoarding the capital to protect themselves in uncertain economic times.

So how big is the bailout? Go ahead, peel the onion…

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