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Commentary: America can't go cold turkey on credit

  • Story Highlights
  • U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Georgia, says U.S. must quit credit gradually
  • We must act to save our financial future, he says
  • Ideal legislation would minimize foreclosures, Marshall says
  • Lawmaker says the important thing is to do something
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By U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall
Special to CNN
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U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall, a Democrat serving his third term in Congress, represents Georgia's 8th Congressional District. He serves on the House Armed Services and Agriculture Committees.

Jim Marshall says he's put his career in the House on the line to pass bailout legislation.

(CNN) -- My family doesn't use credit much. We pay off our charge cards every month. We drive used cars. We paid off our house mortgage early and have not refinanced. We carefully live well within our means. In fact, until very recently, my "apartment" in Washington has been my office.

I'm pretty well-known as a cheapskate.

So when I said recently that I would be willing to give up my seat in Congress in order to pass the financial rescue package, it turned some heads.

It's because I understand what's at stake and because I hope to be a part of reforming our financial system so that we don't have these problems again. Do you support a Wall Street bailout?

I have spent my career as a business, finance and bankruptcy law professor and lawyer. I have helped individuals and institutions get out of financial trouble. More important, I have studied ways to make sure they don't get into trouble in the first place -- and drag all of us down with them.

Some politicians -- and a few economists -- would say that America is drunk on credit and just needs to go cold turkey. But it's more accurate to say we're addicted to credit. Too much credit. Good credit, bad credit, anything that lets us live the high life. We have mistaken growth in the value of financial paper for real economic growth.

Getting clean will not be so easy. When credit is quickly withdrawn, everyone in the business of lending panics. Credit becomes scarce and is not available at a reasonable interest rate. Institutions that need to use credit daily start to fall like dominoes. The financial fallout -- bank failures, risking a stock market crash, worthless retirement and pension funds -- could kill us. We need to reduce our dependence on credit gradually but steadily and with no excuses.

Deep down, we all know that a financial rescue is necessary. I voted for the plan that was defeated today because, to paraphrase Rep. Spencer Bachus, I'm unwilling to play Russian roulette with the financial lives of my children and grandchildren. Although the bill was imperfect and wildly unpopular, I believed that those of us in Congress needed to suck it up, vote for it and let the chips fall where they may.

But the plan has failed. I hope the economists who have warned of an imminent collapse are wrong. To paraphrase Franklin Roosevelt, what we have to fear is fear itself. If people can take a deep breath and avoid an immediate panic, it is my hope that we can improve this plan and still act in time to save our financial future. Bailout fails, Americans win

My own strong preference is that it focus less on acquiring mortgage-backed securities and be more of a tightly focused effort to minimize foreclosures and home vacancies that drive down property values for all of us. For these non-prime mortgage notes, I would give bankruptcy courts the power to modify mortgage payments to make them more realistic. I would limit the pay of not only top Wall Street executives but the traders who made millions by making this problem worse.

I hope we can get a plan that includes at least some of those elements. But most important, we need a bill that can attract enough support to pass.

Then the hard work begins, and that is the work I want to be a part of in the months ahead: Making sure this doesn't happen again. That's why you run for office, or at least why I did. If I have not, in fact, given up my seat because of my vote, I'll be back to work on that myself.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

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