Congress Could Use Financial Overhaul, Too

ADVERTISEMENT

WASHINGTON (TheStreet) — Looking at the list of congressional candidates who will be key negotiators for a sweeping financial reform bill, one has to wonder: Why haven't there been as many changes to government leadership as there have been to bank leadership since the financial crisis erupted?

And, perhaps just as importantly, will there be after the fall elections?

Twenty-five nominees from the House and Senate have been named or floated, and several on the list would give any rational person pause.

Let's start with Rep. Maxine Waters (D., Calif.), a longtime member of the House Financial Services Committee, who apparently doesn't know the difference between the Federal Reserve's benchmark interest rate target and the discount rate that banks use to lend to one another. There are so many absurd Waters moments, it's hard to choose the best.

There was the time she questioned bank executives about mysterious "fees" and was eventually told to "calm down" by a fellow lawmaker. (Ken Lewis, then-CEO of Bank of America (Stock Quote: BAC) told Waters bluntly, "I don't know what you're talking about."

Then there was the time she threatened to nationalize the oil industry unless it lowered gasoline prices for consumers.

"Guess what this liberal would be all about?" she tells the CEO of Royal Dutch Shell. "This liberal would be all about socializing, ah, um ... would be all about basically, taking over and the government running all of your companies."

But maybe the best moment in Waters history may have less to do with her incomprehensible rambling than with an exposé in The Wall Street Journal last year. The congresswoman had been using her leverage in Washington to secure meetings with Treasury officials for a bank that she had a special interest in, called OneUnited. She publicly criticized OneUnited's regulators and cited strengths of its management, according to the Journal. But she was less public about her ownership stake in the bank and her husband's role as a director.

Another selection by Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D., Mass.) — we'll get to him in a moment — was Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D., Ill.), who helped his daughter secure a $155,000 condo in a ritzy Chicago neighborhood using an affordable housing program, according to the Chicago Sun Times. That's despite the fact that she and her husband were earning over $93,000 a year, far more than the income bracket of participants in such assistance programs. His daughter, Omaira Figueroa, sold the condo a year later, netting almost $85,000 on the deal.

And let's not forget Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D., Ark.), whose proposal to regulate derivatives has been widely criticized as a political move that threatens financial stability and the competitiveness of U.S. banking sector. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke went as far as to say that her amendment, which would force banks to chop off their derivatives business into separate entities, would "weaken both financial stability and strong prudential regulation."

Lincoln faces a tough re-election campaign in the fall, and appears to be using the amendment as a "get tough on banks" platform. But it doesn't appear well thought-out in terms of how it would affect U.S. banks, how it would affect corporate end-users, or how it would affect the Fed's U.S. dollar swaps — which are also derivatives.

Senate Banking Chairman Chris Dodd (D., Conn.) didn't really support the measure but allowed it to remain attached to his broader bill to get through the voting process quickly. But it's unclear whether it will survive amid criticism and opposition from him, Frank and other leading Democrats.

The list of Republican nominees to the financial reform conference is less scandalous but not necessarily better. They include a mix of lawmakers who fostered the financial crisis by deregulating the banking industry and those who opposed measures that have helped stabilize the system and the economy. By and large, Republicans have remained intransigent throughout the legislative process, using any sign of weakness to lash out bitterly at the opposition and criticizing measures without suggesting alternatives.

There's Rep. Spencer Bachus (R., Ala.), who helped pass the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act in 1999 — the banking sector's primary deregulation feat, which undid the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. There's also Jeb Hensarling, who was a top official in the administration of that bill's sponsor, former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, and who led the charge against TARP in 2008.

Bachus also voted against TARP — the funds that initially kept the banking system from collapsing and have mostly been returned from banks at a significant profit to taxpayers — as did Scott Garrett (R., N.J.), another conference nominee. There are also TARP apologists like Saxby Chambliss (R., Ala.), who voted "yea" to bailout funds but later voted "nay" to granting additional funds for job creation in an effort to position himself as a deficit hawk.

Then, of course, there are the leaders of both packs: Barney Frank and Chris Dodd on the Democrats' side, and John Boehner (R., Ohio) and Sen. Richard Shelby (R., Ala.) on the Republicans'.

Frank and Dodd have been shepherding Democrats on financial issues long before the financial crisis took shape, as has Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.), who is also on the conference nominee list. They pushed affordable housing goals and supported the deregulation of the financial industry. Their policies sent Fannie Mae (Stock Quote: FNM) and Freddie Mac (Stock Quote: FRE) to the edge of collapse by pushing them further into subprime, and taxpayers can thank them in part for the enormous bailout those two firms have received, of $145-billion-and-counting. Dodd also had to wipe some egg off of his face for being revealed as a "Friend of Angelo" — one of the government officials who received "special" mortgages from Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo.

There are far too many "hindsight is 20/20" quotes and clips to list here for these three lawmakers. But while they left Fannie and Freddie out of the broader reform measure — handing political points to Republican opposition — and haven't really issued any serious "mea culpas," they do seem to be taking reform more seriously, (and be grandstanding more coherently) than some of their peers.

Dodd is stepping down in the fall, but made it a priority to get serious reform legislation through before he retires from the Senate. Frustrated by months of Republican intransigence since the House reform bill was passed last December, he took it upon himself to craft a whole new measure and ram it through a vote to passage. It was no easy task for Dodd, and despite the resistance, he did manage to get some tough measures through the full Senate.

Frank, meanwhile, appears to be struggling to balance his typical candor with a need to maintain party unity. For the most part, he has kept mum on the Fannie-Freddie issue, toeing the Obama administration's line. But he also appears to be taking his financial reform duties seriously, voicing criticism of the Lincoln amendment while balancing his duties as a top Democratic lawmaker.

Schumer — typically Wall Street's BFF on Capitol Hill — has gone even further, making sure to include a "clawback" provision for the executive compensation portion of the bill he was responsible for crafting and telling his bank buddies to get more realistic about the current situation.

"There are some on Wall Street who want me to say Wall Street right or wrong, and I'm not going to do it," Schumer recently told The New York Times. In a nod to his and his colleagues' responsibility, he added: "Clearly they did a lot of things wrong. Too many Wall Street firms had no one looking over their shoulder, and they went off the deep end."

For their part, Boehner and Shelby seem more determined to fight any reform measures initiated by Democrats, regardless of merit. Colleagues like Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) have played second-string, stepping in on reform-bill negotiations when party leaders were too hard-headed to work toward a compromise. But with other conference nominees like Shelby, Sen. Judd Gregg (R., N.H.) and Sen. Mike Crapo (R., Idaho) making hay of the Fannie-Freddie issue and generally lambasting the Democrats as tax-and-spenders with weak-kneed reform measures, it will be difficult to reach a meeting of the minds.

Since the financial crisis exploded, the nation's most troubled firms — including American International Group (Stock Quote: AIG), Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Citigroup (Stock Quote: C) and Bank of America — have all seen major changes in boards and management. In fact, AIG has had two CEO replacements since its bailout; Freddie Mac has had four different CEOs under conservatorship; and both Citi and Bank of America have seen wholesale management changes, largely at the behest of regulators.

Yet here we are with a bunch of cockamamie lawmakers: The same ones who laid fertile ground for a $700 billion bank bailout to take shape and who can't even seem to decide what to reform, much less how to get it done. Amid all of the chatter and heavy-handed tactics, Americans are still waiting for job relief and housing recovery they were promised over a year ago.

—For the best rates on loans, bank accounts and credit cards, enter your ZIP code at BankingMyWay.com.

Show Comments

Back to Top