Analysis: Lobbyists influence financial reform
Get over it, America.
Wall Street bankers make too much money. The latest example: Goldman Sachs says it has set aside $16.7 billion so far this year for compensation — or about $530,000 per employee. Not bad for a company that a year ago received $10 billion in federal money as well as $12.9 billion from the government’s bailout of American International Group Inc.
Maddening? Sure. But forcing Goldman or any other Wall Street firm to pay employees less won’t help a single unemployed American find a job. It won’t help a single homeowner who can’t afford his mortgage. It won’t help a single credit card user whose fees keep getting jacked up.
If you want something to really make you angry, though, consider this number: $224 million. It’s a lot less than $16.7 billion but it could pack far more punch. That’s the amount the financial industry spent in the first half of this year to lobby Congress to water down regulations aimed at preventing another financial meltdown. And more money is expected to be on the way.
“There is so much happening in the financial sector to be upset about. The bonuses are the least of it,” said Barry Ritholtz, who writes the popular financial blog “The Big Picture” and is the author of the new book “Bailout Nation.” “More importantly, we can’t let the banks own Congress.”
The worry is that the money used for lobbying could lead lawmakers to back down on their promises for reform.
The Obama administration and many members of Congress have told the public repeatedly over the last year that a regulatory overhaul was needed to protect us from another financial disaster, and their constituents back home are counting on them. Trillions of dollars in taxpayer funds have been pumped into the financial system to stabilize markets and prevent big institutions from failing.
But the lobbyists’ influence can already be seen.
Some potential powers have been stripped from the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency, which would be a federal watchdog to oversee areas such as mortgages and credit cards.
One requirement that was dropped would have forced banks to make standardized and straightforward “plain vanilla” mortgages available to customers along with other products. For instance, lenders would have had to offer borrowers mortgages with 30-year fixed rates if they also were going to sell adjustable-rate or interest-only loans.
Lenders also would have had to take additional measures to ensure that their communications with customers are not deceptive.
The House Financial Services Committee is overseeing the creation of the consumer agency. It also has made certain exemptions in a bill focused on tougher oversight of derivatives.
Derivatives are contracts between two or more parties, the value of which is determined by fluctuations in underlying assets like stocks, bonds, commodities and interest rates.
Companies use derivatives to hedge against risk, such as when airlines cover themselves against surging fuel prices. But they are also a means for financial speculation. A form of derivative known as a credit-default swap was partly blamed for the crisis that hit Wall Street last year.
The House bill would impose restrictions on derivatives, forcing companies for the first time to conduct what had been private transactions on regulated exchanges. That’s a positive.
But the bill also grants regulatory exemptions to companies that use derivatives for commercial use, which weakens the transparency of those transactions. Big industrial associations, including the Business Roundtable and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, had lobbied for those kinds of exemptions.
The House Financial Services Committee is one target of financial industry lobbyists, which have given more than $6 million to its members in 2009.
In fact, 27 of that House committee’s 71 members have received more than one-quarter of their total political contributions from the financial industry, according to a study by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group that promotes government openness.
“It’s wrong to draw any cause and effect from that,” said committee spokesman Steven Adamske, who pointed to other actions taken by the committee this year in areas like credit-card reform and predatory lending.
But there is certainly lots more lobbying money being put to work in Congress. The pace that the financial, insurance and real estate industries spent on lobbying during the first half of the year puts them on pace to meet last year’s record spending of nearly $460 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a political watchdog group.
Employees and political action committees in those same industries have contributed more than $53 million this year to members of Congress and the political parties.
Lobbyists for financial industry have defended their actions, saying it is within their constitutional right to petition government leaders. That’s certainly true.
It’s also crucial for lawmakers not to falter when it comes to reforming a financial system that broke last fall.