JAN. 13, 2015
In New Congress, Wall St. Pushes to Undermine Dodd-Frank Reform
By JONATHAN WEISMAN and ERIC LIPTON
WASHINGTON -- In the span of a month, the nation's biggest banks and investment firms have twice won passage of measures to weaken regulations intended to help lessen the risk of another financial crisis, setting their sights on narrow, arcane provisions and greasing their efforts with a surge of lobbying and campaign contributions.
The continuing assault on the 2010 Dodd-Frank law has achieved remarkable success, especially compared with the repeated failures of opponents of another 2010 law, the Affordable Care Act.
The financial industry has been methodical, drafting technically complicated legislation that can pass the heavily Republican House with a few Democratic votes. And then, once approved, Wall Street has pushed to tack such measures on to larger bills considered too important for the White House to block.
The House was back at it this week. Lawmakers approved by a vote of 250 to 175, with just eight Democrats in support, a broad measure to impose a variety of new restrictions on federal regulators, like stricter cost-benefit analyses and an expansion of judicial review. That measure would affect every regulatory agency, be it the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or the century-old Food and Drug Administration. And like past attacks on the health care law, it has little chance of overcoming a threat of a presidential veto.
But House members also took up a narrower measure that would slow enforcement of Dodd-Frank requirements and weaken other regulations on financial services companies. The legislation will almost certainly pass on Wednesday with Democratic support, and although its future as a stand-alone bill is not bright, elements of it are expected to return on spending bills and other must-pass legislation in the future.
"This all works together: Put it up for stand-alone vote, get some Democrats on it, and then when you push it onto a must-pass bill, say it's a bipartisan bill that's already passed," said Marcus Stanley, policy director of Americans for Financial Reform, which favors tighter regulation of Wall Street. "The strategy on Dodd-Frank is death by a thousand cuts."
Even with other interest groups seeking the same consideration, the financial industry likes its chances.
"There are limited opportunities for action in both the House and Senate," said James Ballentine, a lobbyist at the American Bankers Association. "And the moving trains generally have a lot of passengers on them."
Proponents of regulation say that they are badly outgunned by an army of Wall Street lobbyists, and complain that the Obama administration has been too weak in its response.
"The president was slow in drawing the same kind of line on financial reform that he did on health care," said Barney Frank, the retired chairman of the House Financial Services Committee who helped write Dodd-Frank.
The current efforts to undermine Dodd-Frank have been textbook lobbying. In the first three quarters of last year, the securities and investment industry spent nearly $74 million on lobbying -- on 704 registered lobbyists -- according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That was on track to easily beat out the $99 million spent in 2013.
The Securities Industry and Financial Market Association, Wall Street's biggest lobbying group, had spent $5.8 million alone through September, the last data available. The group spent $5.2 million in all of 2013.
Lobbying expenditures by every specific industry group declined in 2014, except for the finance, insurance and real estate sector. That sector increased its spending by 2.5 percent.
As of Nov. 16, Wall Street banks and other financial interests had spent $1.2 billion on campaign contributions and lobbying combined, a total that was on track to beat spending in 2010, when Dodd-Frank was being considered in Congress, according to Americans for Financial Reform.
And Wall Street has been a steady donor, particularly to members of the House Financial Services Committee, where the legislation typically gets started. During the last Congress, Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas, the Republican chairman of the committee, received donations on 13 separate occasions from political action committees run by Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase.
Of even greater importance, no influential business group opposes Wall Street's effort, making more Democrats open to the campaign. By contrast, while the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, might have powerful interests -- like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business -- against it, the health insurance and hospital industries, along with leading pharmaceutical companies, are strongly opposing its repeal.
"In American politics, when a particularly economically motivated group gets behind something, that can be more powerful than an ideological viewpoint," Mr. Frank said, comparing his law to the Affordable Care Act. "Nobody who makes their money in health care is going after that bill. There are a lot of people making money in finance that are going after this bill."
Financial industry lobbyists say they are being unfairly pilloried. The changes they have won and further revisions they seek do not undermine the core of Dodd-Frank, they say. What has changed, they contend, is the rise of Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, whose vocal attacks on Wall Street and its denizens have polarized the issue.
Sam Geduldig, who represents financial services companies, called her a "game changer."
"Legislation now almost has a Warren litmus test, the liberal version of what is happening in the Republican Party with libertarians and Tea Party conservatives," he said. "If Warren describes something as a gift to corporate industry, you have to kind of walk through that gantlet."
Separately, MetLife, the insurance company, went to court on Tuesday challenging its designation as a "systemically important financial institution," a label under Dodd-Frank that allows regulators to impose tighter rules aimed at lessening risk-taking that might threaten the overall financial system.
Administration officials say the tide is turning in their favor. Last week, the House tried to pass a measure that would delay by two years Dodd-Frank's requirement that banks sell off collateralized loan obligations, the bundled debt that helped cause the 2008 financial collapse. The bill was even titled the "Promoting Job Creation and Reducing Small Business Burdens Act."
But this time, most Democrats banded together against it, and the bill failed to get the two-thirds majority needed to pass under fast-track House rules. (Thirty-five Democrats  did vote for it.)
Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, in an opinion article  this weekend, said President Obama was "prepared to defend the gains we have made against attempts to water down protections and expose the economy to the risky practices of the past."
That measure is now back on the House floor under normal rules that require only a simple majority to pass, and the White House has issued a veto threat against the bill, which officials said puts "working- and middle-class families at risk while benefiting Wall Street and other narrow special interests."
But those stands came only after other Wall Street-backed measures were attached to December's spending bill that funds the government through September and last week's bill reauthorizing federal terrorism insurance. Both were signed into law.
"You can argue that of all the very powerful special interests that work in this city, Wall Street is at the top of list," said Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent and liberal populist from Vermont.
For all its sway in Washington, Wall Street is also widely reviled. So, one of the secrets to its success is wrapping itself around a friendlier cause. Lobbyists have contended that measures long sought by the biggest banks and investment houses are actually for community banks, small businesses, farmers and ranchers.
"They have been very expert at controlling the narrative thus far," said Cornelius Hurley, director of the Boston University Center for Finance, Law and Policy.
One of Congress's last acts of 2014 was to pass a measure largely repealing a Dodd-Frank provision that required banks to push the trading of exotic financial instruments known as derivatives into subsidiaries that are not eligible for deposit insurance and other forms of government support. Members of Congress, echoing Wall Street's lobbying pitch, said the so-called swaps push-out rule was too onerous for small community banks.
In fact, according to the Office of the Comptroller of Currency, 95 percent of derivatives trading is conducted by five firms: Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley. By keeping such activity under their federally regulated banking arms, those behemoths get to keep borrowing costs down.
Mr. Ballentine, the banking industry lobbyist, said the chance of success had also increased as turnover in Congress reduced the number of lawmakers who voted on Dodd-Frank.
"There is a strong possibility, a strong possibility, that every single sentence in Dodd Frank is not perfect," he said. "And the newer members, they are not wed to every single word."