Senate passes sweeping financial regulation bill

Jon Ward Contributor
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The Senate Thursday evening passed a landmark financial regulation bill that Democrats said would prevent future taxpayer-funded bailouts of large Wall Street firms, but which Republicans said was a rushed and overbearing measure that could do more harm than good. The Senate passed the bill on a 59-39 vote, with four Republicans joining Democrats in voting for it and two Democrats voting against it. The bill will give the federal government new powers to take over failing financial institutions and unwind them, require complicated derivative trading to be routed through a central clearinghouse, and create a massive new consumer protection agency. The bill will now go to a conference committee so that it can be reconciled with a version passed by the House last fall. Democrats want to get the bill to President Obama’s desk by July 4. Democrats hailed the legislation. “It means that we’re finally going to put an end to the whole notion of ‘too big to fail.’ You’re never going to have to hear about taxpayers bailing out Wall Street,” said Sen. Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat, who was a key player in crafting the bill. Obama made a simple and firm promise: “There will be no more taxpayer-funded bailouts — period.” But Republicans slammed the bill for doing nothing to fix the problem of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two government-owned failed mortgage giants who have cost taxpayers $145 billion and are poised to hemorrhage hundreds of billions more over the next few years. Sen. Richard Shelby, the ranking member on the Senate Banking Committee, asked how the Senate could pass legislation on a topic so complex when the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, created by Congress to determine the causes of the 2008 financial crisis and near-meltdown, has just recently only begun its work and is nowhere near to delivering a final report. “This represents a fundamental failure of this body to do its own due diligence before we even attempt such a significant undertaking,” said Shelby, an Alabama Republican. “The American people expect more, and certainly deserved more from us.” The GOP also said the government’s takeover authority would privilege large financial institutions over smaller one and still leave risk of bailouts in such a way that Wall Street is incentivized toward greater risk-taking instead of less, that derivatives regulations would be overly burdensome and drive trading overseas, and that the consumer agency would be a huge and unnecessary bureaucracy that could end up intruding into every day American commerce. Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, said the measure was “supposed to rein in Wall Street, but instead is just another Washington takeover – this time of Main Street.” Shelby said that “behind the veil of anti-Wall Street rhetoric is an unrelenting desire to manage every facet of commerce under the guise of consumer protection.” The president and Democrats framed the bill as a victory for the American people over the concerted efforts of Wall Street bankers and Republicans who stood against reform. “President Obama, Congressional Democrats and the American people achieved a victory … despite weeks of Republican attempts to weaken or delay the bill’s passage,” said Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine. Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, wrote that the bill was “not reform.” “Its fundamental architecture expands and centralizes power in Washington, doubling down on the root causes of the 2008 crisis. It is based on a vision that government can foresee future crises and avert them, despite the fact that an army of regulators never saw the most recent crisis coming,” Ryan said. Tony Fratto, a former Bush administration economics adviser and spokesman, said the bill was “borne of ignorance, myopia, and vengeance, not sound policy.” “If the derivatives title, in particular, isn’t fixed in conference, U.S. financial institutions will be harmed irreparably, and they will lose a competitive advantage over our foreign institutions,” Fratto said. “The bill takes a great U.S. asset — our deep, liquid markets and banks — and sacrifices them for populism.” But Warner insisted, at a press conference after the bill passed, that the the U.S. had led the way in showing the rest of the global economic system how to provide rules of the road to prevent another economic crisis. “Europe hasn’t acted. Asia hasn’t acted. They’re still waiting for America to act,” said Warner, who also said the bill would allow the U.S. to remain the financial center of the world. Similarly, Obama said that the bill he signs “will not stifle the power of the free market — it will simply bring predictable, responsible, sensible rules into the marketplace.” The Republicans who voted for the bill were Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Susan Collins of Maine, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, and Olympia Snowe of Maine. The Democrats who voted against were Maria Cantwell of Washington and Russell Feingold of Wisconsin. At the Democrats press conference afterward, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat who is in a tough reelection fight this fall, appeared with Warner, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, of Connecticut, and two other Democrats who are facing significant election challenges: Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, and Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, who is in the middle of a primary runoff that will be decided June 8. Email Jon Ward and follow him on Twitter