The Speaker’s Lobby: This is Spinal Tap
By: Chad Pergram, FOX News
19 March 2009

Standard amps and speakers have volume controls that only go up to ten. That’s as loud as they go.

But anyone’s who’s seen the classic mockumentary “This is Spinal Tap” knows that’s not always case. The fictional heavy metal band Spinal Tap depicted in the film plays its gigs with special amplifiers equipped to “go to eleven.”

“Well, it’s one louder,” argues lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel, portrayed by Christopher Guest.

This confounds Rob Reiner, acting as the man making the documentary.

“Why don’t you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?” Reiner asks.

This logic baffles Tufnel. But he answers. Undaunted.

“These go to eleven,” Tufnel insists.

Word broke last weekend that stumbling insurance giant AIG was about to pay out $165 million in retention bonuses – after it benefited from a $170 billion taxpayer-backed bailout last fall. That’s when the public discovered that it wasn’t only Spinal Tap that could crank up the volume to 11. Members of Congress own special amps, too. And they sure used them.

The Senate Democratic Caucus penned a letter to AIG Chief Executive Officer Edward Liddy expressing their “outrage” and insisted that AIG “immediately renegotiate these contracts.”

“The taxpayers have been fleeced twice,” raged Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO).

In a statement, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) described the bonuses as “fat” and added that he “had more than my fill of his malarkey.”

And Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) even suggested that the executives reaping the bonuses should return the money or kill themselves. Grassley then spent much of the week toning down his comments.

You’re looking for bipartisanship in Washington? You’ve found it. Rarely have so many lawmakers from both sides of the aisle been so unified to spew so much invective at a collective something. It brought back memories of outraged lawmakers coalescing a few years ago around their mutual opposition to the Bush Administration’s decision to outsource U.S. port security to a firm based in the United Arab Emirates. Lawmakers balked.

Rep. Sue Myrick (R-NC) crystallized the level of vitriol erupting from Capitol Hill in this terse letter to President Bush:

“Dear Mr. President: In regards to selling American ports to the United Arab Emirates – not just NO – but HELL NO. Sincerely, Sue Myrick.”

Lawmakers held similar contempt for AIG. And were poised to pounce on AIG Chief Executive Officer Edward Liddy when he attempted to justify the bonuses at a House hearing Wednesday.
Before joining AIG, Liddy ran Allstate Insurance. And lawmakers felt those bonuses were in anything but good hands with AIG.

Liddy came out of retirement to operate AIG. He collects $1 annually for his services.

Many think he was dealt a bad hand and is doing the best he can. But others believed Liddy was the most ignominious figure with that surname in Washington since G. Gordon.

Before the hearing, hordes of press roamed the hallways. Reporters jockeyed for seats inside the hearing room. Even lawmakers who weren’t on the committee showed up. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) isn’t on the House Financial Services panel. But Cummings has been a leading critic of AIG. As a senior lawmaker, Cummings would usually sit high up on the dais at the hearing. So he found himself seated down at floor level alongside  freshmen lawmakers. And directly across from the witness table where Liddy would sit.

Some reporters speculated if Cummings strategically positioned himself there so he could get up in Liddy’s grill when the CEO testified. That wasn’t the case. That’s just where the committee assigned Cummings a seat.

But before getting to Liddy, a House Financial Services Subcommittee first had to wade through several hours of interminable testimony from Scott Polakoff of the Office of Thrift Supervision and three other witnesses. Lawmakers licked their chops as they waited for Liddy to enter Capitol Hill’s Star Chamber.

“Mr. Polakoff, I want to ask you some direct questions, and I want you to give me some direct answers because I want to speed up to get to Mr. Liddy,” said Rep. David Scott (D-GA)

But ironically when lawmakers finally got to Liddy in the early afternoon, the Q&A was tame. Many expressed consternation about the bonuses. But the give and take was civil. Ironically, the same hearing room was packed at 10 am to hear from Polakoff, an investigator from the Government Accountability Office, a state insurance commissioner and insurance expert from Standard and Poor’s. But when Liddy’s time came, the crowd dissipated. Lawmakers who crammed into the room to hear Liddy were now off voting or attending other hearings. Reporters departed to work other stories. There were even available seats in the public section of the room.

By late afternoon, Members of Congress muted their frustration at Liddy. They seemingly traded in their Spinal Tap amps for something capable of playing Percy Faith’s “Theme from a Summer Place.”

But with only four lawmakers present, a dwindling public and a handful of reporters left in the room, freshman Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) wheeled out a rhetorical Stratocaster. Grayson plunged into a Congressional riff that would make Eddie Van Halen…or even Spinal Tap’s  Nigel Tufnel jealous

As the final inquisitor at the hearing, Grayson challenged Liddy to cough up the names of people who helped crash AIG.

“I don’t know them, sir,” Liddy responded after Grayson asked him several times.

“Not a single one?” pondered Grayson. “You’re talking about a group, a small group of people who caused your company to lose $100 billion. As you sit here today, you can’t give me one single name?

Liddy later said he didn’t want to provide the names to Grayson because there are “individuals who want to do damage to them.”

Grayson parried Liddy’s thrust.

“Is it more important to protect them, the ones who caused the $100 billion loss, or protect us? Which is more important to you right now?” Grayson asked at the end of his Guitar Hero solo, Congressional style.

A few minutes later, Liddy and the lawmakers were gone. And the Congressional roadies packed up the hearing room.

By Thursday, Liddy was little more than an afterthought on Capitol Hill.

Some Republicans demanded the resignation of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.

A statement from House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said that “the reality couldn’t be further from the truth” when Republicans claimed they led the fight to protect taxpayers from “excessive executive compensation.”

The volume level had returned to where it usually is in Washington. It was certainly loud as it always is.

But it wasn’t dialed up to 11.

– Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.