The New York Times takes a look at the “liberal amendments” to the Wall Street reform bill, which are actually just common-sense amendments to deal with the problem of an overheated financial sector, but which put those who just want to nibble around the edges and no put meaningful constraints on the big banks in a bind:
The liberal amendment that could be hardest to defeat — and is among the most deeply dreaded by Wall Street — also has some of the purest populist appeal: a proposal by Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Senator Ted Kaufman of Delaware to break up the nation’s biggest banks by imposing caps on the deposits they can hold and limits on other liabilities.
“Look at what we did to AT&T, look at Standard Oil, basically what you do is you just split it apart,” Mr. Kaufman said in an interview. “If we don’t do that, we have got too big to fail, because when you look at these big complex entities, you cannot resolve them in a major financial crisis.”
Already, antibank rhetoric dominates the debate, which began in earnest this week. Odd as it might seem, liberal Democrats are aligned with conservative Republicans on some issues, further lifting the chances of amendments like one by Senator Bernard Sanders, independent of Vermont, to audit the Federal Reserve.
After President Obama rallied the charge for weeks for tough new rules on Wall Street, the strong push by liberal Democrats is forcing the administration to prevent the bill from getting too tough. It has also shifted the lobbying strategy for financial companies, putting them squarely on the defensive.
Perhaps the White House got too far out in front of their own rhetoric. They wanted to paint Wall Street as a villain, but without meaningfully constraining their activities. The list of amendments Dan Pfeiffer wrote about yesterday is among the weakest, limpest, most irrelevant collection of nothing I think you’ll ever see. It’s on a completely different plane, totally divorced with the real efforts to strengthen the bill.
But now some Democrats are emboldened, though whether they can round up the required votes, or even get a vote on some of these amendments, is another matter. A New Way Forward is conducting a whip count on the Brown/Kaufman Safe Banking Act, and they count 10 yes and 8 lean yes, including Republican Jim Bunning. Four Democrats – Kent Conrad, Mark Warner, Bill Nelson and Mark Begich – are thus far opposed, and I’d expect a couple more. If someone filibusters, Safe Banking is sunk, but under a 50-vote threshold it may have a shot.
The audit the Fed amendment from Bernie Sanders picked up two more co-sponsors yesterday, Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski. Jay Rockefeller and John Ensign appear to be Yes votes. Add that to the current co-sponsors and you have 23 votes for sure. But Claire McCaskill, Sheldon Whitehouse, Richard Burr, John Cornyn, and now Kay Hagan are turning away from the amendment, after supporting it in different forms previously. Hagan actually wrote to a constituent that “Under common usage of the term audit — an examination of accounts and records — there is already a 100 percent audit of the Federal Reserve,” which is something less than the truth. We could see a vote on this today.
And there are plenty of other solid amendments out there – Merkley-Levin to ban prop trading and incorporate the Volcker rule, Cantwell-McCain to reinstate Glass-Steagall, the Franken amendment on the rating agencies, Jack Reed’s amendment to make the Consumer Financial Protection Agency fully independent, and more. A lot of breakdowns got us into this mess, so attacking the problems from a variety of angles will get us out.
In addition, there are weakening amendments from Republicans that must get beaten back, along with others that should get a look. They’ve finally put together a proposal on Fannie and Freddie, which would take the GSEs out of conservatorship and move solely into the private sphere. That doesn’t sound like the way to go – I’d prefer fully public over fully private – but the negative headlines of Freddie Mac asking for another $10 billion may spur lawmakers to seek changes, and some of what is proposed in these reforms seems sound.
By contrast, Jim DeMint’s plan to attach language mandating completion of the border fence with Mexico in the bill is, um, ridiculous.
In the end, even if the worst amendments can be staved off, and some of the good ones adopted, you have to find 60 votes to break the filibuster at the close of the debate. And with Ben Nelson still opposed to the total framework, that math is a bit daunting.
Throughout it all, the choice facing Senators is clear – empower the same exact regulators who failed previously, or fundamentally change the way Wall Street does business, to the benefit of all.