Glass-Steagall Resurrected?

| Thu Dec. 17, 2009 1:29 PM EST

Is the Glass-Steagall Act, the Depression-era law that blocked commercial banks from participating in riskier investment banking, set for a revival? That's what a new piece of legislation, introduced yesterday by Senators Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), would do, forcing major changes to financial titans like JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, and Bank of America. 

But first, here's McCain on the new legislation on CNBC:

Reestablishing the firewall between commercial and investment banking poses a dilemma for banks such as JPMorgan Chase, which snapped up Bear Stearns' trading operations earlier this year, and massive Citigroup, which includes more staid consumer banking branches as well as riskier trading operations. The already controversial, shotgun-wedded Bank of America and Merrill Lynch relationship wouldn't survive if Glass-Steagall was revived, either. And you can throw Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo into that mix, too. The McCain-Cantwell legislation would give such institutions a year to break up their different banking arms.

The Depression-era law, you'll remember, was abolished in 1999 by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, one of the most significant pieces of deregulatory legislation in the past few decades, paving the way for the emergence of financial behemoths like Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, and Citigroup (though Citi received somewhat of an exemption to grow even before 1999). It's a long shot at this point, but bringing Glass-Steagall back would be a watershed moment for financial regulation and major step toward scaling back the excesses and ridiculous risk-taking of the past decade or so. At the very least it would protect consumers' savings from use in banks' riskier operations.

And talk about a role reversal for John McCain! McCain voted for Gramm-Leach-Bliley back in 1999—a vote to tear down a law he now wants to restore. And as David Corn wrote last year, one of McCain's closest economic advisers during part of the presidential campaign was the godfather of deregulation himself, former Sen. Phil "Nation of Whiners" Gramm

Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) is going to introduce similar legislation in the House, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday. Hinchey tried to get his bill into the House's big financial-reform package earlier this month, but Democratic leadership blocked him.

Since the Senate probably won't take up financial regulation until early 2010, it's unclear how soon the McCain-Cantwell legislation will get its day in the sun. It could be tucked into the Senate's financial regulation plans, or introduced as an amendment later in the sausage-making process. Either way, it's a promising idea and an encouraging start to the Senate's financial overhaul.