You get the impression that Democrats would be perfectly pleased with a filibuster today from the Republicans on a financial reform bill. They have no problem creating the picture of a Republican Party in bed with Wall Street and protecting the banks. Most of that is even true. Public Citizen just released a report showing that the 41 Republicans likely to block reform today took 25% more contributions from financial interests than the 59 Democrats who support it.
Furthermore, Democrats believe they have public opinion on their side:
About two-thirds of Americans support stricter regulations on the way banks and other financial institutions conduct their business, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Majorities also back two main components of legislation congressional Democrats plan to bring to a vote in the Senate this week: greater federal oversight of consumer loans and a company-paid fund that would cover the costs of dismantling failed firms that put the broader economy at risk.
Weirdly, people have a split opinion in the poll of the effort to regulate derivatives, with 43% in favor and 41% opposed. I say “weirdly” because I don’t believe that people have an opinion at all of derivatives, or rather that they’ve even heard of them or can explain them.
Harry Reid’s spokesman, Jim Manley, sounded positively giddy about the prospect of Republicans sticking together in opposition:
“Today, Republicans face a major choice: Will they stand up for the American people, and join us to hold Wall Street accountable for the reckless gambling that cost 8 million Americans their jobs and millions more their economic livelihood? Or will they follow the marching orders they’ve been getting at their secret, closed-door meetings with Wall Street executives, and continue to protect Wall Street?
“We remain eager to work with Republicans who are sincere about reforming Wall Street, and we are hopeful for bipartisan agreement on this important effort. But there are no two ways about it: a vote against even opening debate on holding Wall Street accountable is a vote to protect Wall Street.”
It is likely that Manley will get his wish. Richard Shelby said today that a deal was unlikely by the 5:00 deadline when the cloture vote on the motion to proceed will happen.
Of course, this partisan food fight and play for positioning all obscures the actual substance of the bill. On that front, we have some good news. The deal on derivatives apparently includes many of the rules included by the Senate Agriculture Committee, including spinning off the swaps trading desks, which really would cut into the profits of the banks:
Officials said the Democratic plan on derivatives included many tougher provisions put forward by Senator Blanche Lincoln, Democrat of Arkansas and chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee, including one that is fiercely opposed by major banks because it would force them to spin off much of their derivatives business. The rules say any bank dealing in swaps, a popular and lucrative derivative, would be barred from the Federal Reserve’s emergency borrowing window and also from federal deposit insurance.
The agreement underscored the rising confidence among Democrats and the Obama administration that Senate Republicans could not hold ranks against the bill for much longer, given the high-stakes election year and the widespread public outrage at Wall Street.
However, the overall package that will get a vote today will tinker around the edges rather than transform the financial sector, in a way that Robert Johnson considers insufficient:
We need new laws and a new regulatory ethic to arrest the dominance of a financial sector that looms too large on our economic landscape. No one can argue that an industry that reaped 41 percent of all corporate profits before the crisis, and caused so much enduring damage, contributes to the economy anything on that order of magnitude. It is emblematic of the power of Wall Street that self-proclaimed deficit hawks, so keen on entitlement reform, fail to exhibit comparable zeal when it comes to preventing catastrophic events that will add at least 30 percent to the ratio of national debt to gross domestic product. One more financial crisis and America’s public finances will resemble Italy’s.
A simple menu of what we need includes:
• Derivatives reform;
• Off-balance-sheet reform;
• Rating-agency reform;
• Restructuring of housing finance;
• Separation of risky activities from the financial safety net;
• Separation of activities that have inherent conflicts of interest within a firm;
• Legal resolution powers for large failed institutions, with consistent cross-border standards;
• Significant increase in resources and salaries for supervision, examination, and regulation; and
• Consumer financial protection.
Yet despite appearances, none of these reforms is truly included in pending legislation. Why can’t we get real financial reform? Some argue that the issues are so arcane that the public can’t comprehend the differences between real and cosmetic reform. But there is abundant evidence that the public is not so easily deceived. In fact, the widespread rage at Wall Street, which pundits decry as “populism,” is really quite valid. Elected officials often disparage public intelligence when the public wants something that is in conflict with the powerful. It is their form of denial when their jobs are in peril.
This painful truth about financial reform has been obscured by the partisan fight over it. But there’s still time to get it right, and Senators have offered several amendments that, when combined, configure a blueprint to an enduring policy that would rein in the financial sector. All we need for it is political will.