Bailed-out automakers like General Motors and Chrysler and their banking brethren who the government rescued in 2008 and 2009 are on a K Street shopping spree. As The Hillreports today, those companies that pleaded for billions in government funding to stay afloat are now hiring the top lobbying firepower that Washington has to offer, making sure their voices are heard as Congress tackles a spate of new bills like comprehensive financial-reform and health-care legislation.
General Motors, for instance, has hired three big lobbying outfits—Public Strategies, Navigators, and Dutko Worldwide—to press lawmakers on issues such as tax reform and auto safety, the latter a hot-button issue given the recent hearings in Congress on Toyota's safety woes. And two big-name players in the banking world—Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley—have ramped up their lobbying arsenal as well in the past two or three months. In December and January, Goldman hired the Harold Ford Group and Gibson Dunn & Crutcher to lobby on financial-reform legislation, and Morgan Stanley retained the law firm Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal in January to work on financial-reform—an issue that could have seismic effects on how the two firms and the rest of Wall Street do business.
This ramp-up of lobbying firepower, especially among the big banks, almost surely means a weaker financial-reform bill will emerge from Congress. As our own Kevin Drum reported earlier this year, Big Finance's foot soldiers in Washington pretty much own capital already. And if Goldman and its allies are now beefing up their ranks even more, you can bet they'll win more than a few victories in watering down any effort, however well-intended, to rein in the big banks.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the top GOP negotiator in the Senate's arduous financial-reform talks, is doing the dirty work for one of the dirtiest of financial industries: payday lending. Corker, the New York Timesreports today, is pushing hard to throw a loophole in Senate banking committee's bill for the payday lending industry—essentially a form of loan sharking—to blunt any new oversight. The move sets up a potential showdown with Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), banking committee chair and leader of the financial-reform talks, whose November draft of legislation empowered a new, independent consumer-protection agency to crack down on payday lenders, among other non-banking institutions.
According to the Times, while a consumer agency tentatively agreed to by Dodd and Corker might be able to write new regulations for payday lenders, it would have to consult with other regulators to enforce those rules. Consumer advocates have repeatedly said gutting a consumer agency's rule-enforcement power would kneecap the new agency and limit its usefulness. And if the Senate goes lightly on the payday lending industry, it's likely to set up a battle between the House—whose bill last winter called for new oversight of the industry—and the Senate when the two try to merge their bill.
Corker's support for the payday lending industry is no surprise given the power the industry wields in his home state. The main trade group for payday lenders, the Community Financial Services Association, was founded in Tennessee in 1999, and has donated $1,000 to Corker. Corker has also received thousands more in donations from other heavy-hitters in the payday lending business, like $6,500 from the founders of Advance America, a leading payday lender. And overall, the industry's lobbying efforts almost tripled between 2005 and 2008 to maintain lax regulation of their industry, while at the same time business is booming for payday lenders. Especially with all those unemployed workers to prey on.
That's the message coming from the GOP's lead negotiator in the Senate on a new Wall Street crackdown. Today Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), on CNBC to talk about the state of play in the Senate banking committee's financial-reform negotiations, said no one should get their hopes up for a bill that tackles all parts of the financial-reform equation. "I don't think we oughta try to pass legislation that solves every problem in the world," Corker said. "I think when we do that we end up with things like [what] is happening right now with health care reform." The junior senator from Tennessee added that a "middle of the road"—not too far to the left or the right—and "very solid" bill was the best outcome for the Senate banking committee, which has been embroiled in financial-reform talks for months now. (Below is the CNBC video, with more after it.)
On the one hand, Corker makes a fair point. Politics is compromise, and if the Democrats and Republicans on the banking committee try to inject their own ideologies into financial reform, we'll still be waiting for the banking committee to release a bill in November. That said, a crisis, to borrow the well-worn adage, is a terrible thing to waste, and the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 offered a once-in-a-generation opportunity for lawmakers to put aside partisan differences and pass a comprehensive, historic bill. That bill would do away with the government's implicit bailout guarantee, protect consumers, shed some light on the derivatives industry, and try to end what Simon Johnson, former IMF chief economist, has called the "doom cycle."
That window of opportunity, however, looks to have passed. Odds are, if and when the dust settles and a financial-reform bill lands on President Obama's desk, that legislation will do far less than originally anticipated and possibly represent a victory for the financial services community. Sen. Corker's comments today are further confirmation (if you needed more) that any chances of a major overhaul have disappeared.
You know the fight for financial reform has truly hit a fever pitch when the Defense Department, the monolith of the US government, has entered the ring. Not to be outdone by auto-industry lobbyists, the Pentagon has begun to lobby the Senate banking committee to convince them, including chairman Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), that any new consumer-protection agency should oversee auto dealers as well as banks and non-banking companies like subprime mortgage lenders, Politicoreports. The DoD insists that any new consumer agency regulate dealers due to numerous reports of car salesmen preying on members of the military—a tactic Mother Jones' own Stephanie Mencimer reported in detail on last summer. And because the House's version of financial-reform exempted auto dealers from a consumer agency's oversight, the DoD is pushing hard to make sure the Senate doesn't include the same loophole.
The Pentagon's push came most notably in a February 26 letter from Clifford Stanley, an undersecretary of defense, citing auto dealers' "unscrupulous" practices toward members of the military. A consumer advocate added, "Predatory lending affects our military preparedness...It explains that this is not just some liberal position." A spokesman from the National Automotive Dealers Association told Politico that the practices decried by the DoD are already outlawed, and that a new consumer agency would only increase bureaucratic bloat in Washington. "Creating new regulatory mandates on top of existing federal and state statutes will likely drive up costs, limit vehicle financing options and, for many consumers including service members, effectively eliminate their ability to obtain financing to meet their vehicle need," the spokesman said.
Yes, you read that correctly. The movement for a strong, independent consumer-protection agency has officially reached quasi-celebrity status. Heidi Montag, the reality TV mainstay and failed pop singer, is in a new, tongue-in-cheek video stumping for an independent consumer-protection agency as Congress' financial-reform talks slog on. The video, put together by the online humor site Funny or Die and Americans for Financial Reform, shows Montag poking fun at her recent plastic-surgery marathon while decrying the predatory practices of credit-card companies at the same time ("With hidden fees and standard interest-rate increases, that $11,000 jawline could end up costing you upwards of $50,000"). Now, I'm no celebrity gossip fan, and have no patience for people famous for no discernable reason whatsoever, but this video is clever, pretty damn funny, and worth watching. Here it is: