Congress and the Bush administration have to come up with billions of dollars to rescue the crisis-stricken savings and loan industry. But charging a fee on all deposits in federally-insured banks, S&Ls, and credit unions is not the way to do it.
The fee idea undoubtedly was just a trial balloon floated by the U.S. Treasury. The storm of criticism that met the proposal on all sides probably means it won't survive.But just bringing up the possibility is doing some damage to the already shaky S&L industry. The Federal Home Loan Bank Board noted the other day that the fee idea has made S&L depositors so nervous that some are withdrawing their money.
The agency says no S&Ls are in trouble as a result of the reaction by depositors, but if there is one thing the troubled industry doesn't need, it is still another drain on resources.
It is a measure of the desperate situation of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp., the agency that insures S&L deposits, that the idea of levying a fee was proposed in the first place.
The FSLIC spent $38 billion last year to resolve the finances of more than 220 failing S&Ls. Another 350 insolvent institutions remain open, and another $85 billion may be needed to deal with the problem.
At a time when the federal budget is mandated by the Gramm-Rudman law to cut next year's deficit to "only" $114 billion, finding those extra billions won't be easy. And it's a shame that taxpayers will be the ones who have to pick up the bill for S&L problems, many of them self-inflicted.
The fee proposal suggested a 25-30 cent charge for every $100 deposited in any federally-insured savings institution - a way of making depositors pay for such insurance.
As a kind of "user fee" - some critics call it a tax - it makes a certain sense. But it also would have the effect of discouraging saving, just the opposite of what the nation needs.
Aside from the earnings and individual personal security of savings, a high level of savings nationally helps hold down interest rates, provides money for industrial expansion and modernization, and generally contributes to national economic health.
Unfortunately, Americans are among the very worst savers in industrialized countries. A fee levied against personal savings would not help. What the nation needs is something to encourage people to save more, not less.