The battle for financial reform comes down to the ownership of one critical piece of real estate, one that has managed to avoid the crash that has ended the dreams of security for so many: the nation’s Capital.
“We’re at a critical moment point in our democracy,” Elizabeth Warren, the congressional bailout monitor, told those of us gathered on a webinar Wednesday. “Either the banks own Washington or the people do.”
Warren was referring to something that the Democratic Senate whip, Dick Durbin, said last year about the place where he works, in an rare moment of a politician telling the truth: “The banks own this place.”
Elizabeth Warren, a tireless promoter of consumer protection and truth teller about the decline of the decline of fortunes of regular folks, prefers to view Durbin’s declaration as premature.
But a more definitive answer is not far off, according to Warren; it could come next month. The full Senate is expected to begin debate on financial reform when it returns from recess this month with a final vote in May.
Congress is one place where the bubble hasn’t burst. The value of those congressional seats hasn’t gone down since the crash; it’s gone up. Representatives and senators are raking n more than ever from corporate lobbyists.
The banks are fully mobilized, unloading $1 million a day to block, neutralize and weaken reform. The webinar, sponsored by Americans for Financial Reform and Americans for Responsible Lending, was an effort to galvanize reform supporters into action.
As reluctant as I am to disagree with Warren about anything, on this one I’m with Durbin. From the evidence, it’s hard to see how Wall Street hasn’t gotten everything it wants from the politicians, even after the greatest financial meltdown since the Depression.
The question is whether we can take back that inflated piece of real estate and reestablish its true value. Can we turn our frustration and rage over the bailouts and our elected representatives’ impotence into action?
There are marches – April 29th on Wall Street and May 17 on K street, where the lobbyists have their offices. And there are elected representatives to inundate with messages in favor of reform. Reform advocates can’t match the bankers’ cash, but they have people power on their side.
One questioner asked Warren at what point the Senate reform proposal from Sen. Chris Dodd, which was initially strong before Dodd watered it down, would become so weak it wouldn’t be worth supporting. Warren didn’t answer the question directly. “They’re not leaving much margin for error,” she said.
Unfortunately, when it comes to financial reform, the devil is in the details, and we have to insist on real reforms.
× Breaking up banks that are too big to fail (Dodd’s proposal doesn’t do that now).
× Creating a strong and independent financial consumer protection agency (Dodd proposes to house it in the Fed, with other banking regulators able to veto the consumer protector’s decisions)
× Forcing banks to have more “skin in the game” (The Senate bill require bankers to keep money in reserve equal to 5 percent of loans they bundle and sell off; European regulators require twice that amount).
× Congress setting the amounts of capital financial institutions would have to keep on hand, rather than leaving it for the regulators to decide.
What we’ve learned in the past several months, from the report on the Lehman bankruptcy and the Fed’s recent disclosures on its involvement in Bear-Stearns takeover by J.P. Morgan, is that regulators weren’t asleep at the switch before, during and after the financial crisis. Rather, the regulators have actively colluded with the banks in an attempt to conceal the banks shady practices. Too much of what is being called financial reform is actually just maintaining the status quo while pretending to overhaul the system.
I don’t agree with a lot of what the Tea Party has offered. They don’t offer much in the way of positive proposals, and seem particularly weak in grappling with the issue of unchecked corporate power. But I think they’ve shown how a group of people (with some corporate funding) can shake up and shape a national debate. The Tea Party has no corner on frustration, anger, betrayal or the sense that something has gone deeply wrong in our country. There’s no reason we can’t channel that frustration and anger to plant the flag of real reform in the middle of real estate that, after all, belongs to us. Now’s the time to do it.
Here’s how to contact your senator and representative. Here’s the web site for Americans for Financial Reform.