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Banking Lobby Tools In Senate Subvert Reform

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May 20. 2010

The financial pseudo-reform bill is being exposed as a farce.  Thanks to its tools in the Senate, the banking lobby is on the way toward defeating any significant financial reform.  Although Democrats in the Senate (and the President himself) have been posing as reformers who stand up to those “fat cat bankers”, their actions are speaking much louder than their words.  What follows is a list of the Senate Democrats who voted against both the Kaufman – Brown amendment (to prevent financial institutions from being “too big to fail”) as well as the amendment calling for more Federal Reserve transparency (sponsored by Republican David Vitter to comport with Congressman Ron Paul’s original “Audit the Fed” proposal – H.R. 1207 – which was replaced by the watered-down S. 3217 ):

Akaka (D-HI), Baucus (D-MT), Bayh (D-IN), Bennet (D-CO), Carper (D-DE), Conrad (D-ND), Dodd (D-CT), Feinstein (D-CA), Gillibrand (D-NY), Hagan (D-NC), Inouye (D-HI), Johnson (D-SD), Kerry (D-MA), Klobuchar (D-MN), Kohl (D-WI), Landrieu (D-LA), Lautenberg (D-NJ), Lieberman (ID-CT), McCaskill (D-MO), Menendez (D-NJ), Nelson (D-FL), Nelson (D-NE), Reed (D-RI), Schumer (D-NY), Shaheen (D-NH), Tester (D-MT), Udall (D-CO) and Mark Warner (D-VA).

I wasn’t surprised to see Senator Chuck Schumer on this list because, after all, Wall Street is located in his state.  But how about Senator Claire McCaskill?  Remember her performance at the April 27 hearing before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations?   She really went after those banksters – didn’t she?  Why would she suddenly turn around and support the banks in opposing those two amendments?   I suppose the securities and investment industry is entitled to a little payback, after having given her campaign committee $265,750.

I was quite disappointed to see Senator Amy Klobuchar on that list.  Back on June 19, 2008, I included her in a piece entitled “Women to Watch”.  Now, almost exactly two years later, we are watching her serve as a tool for the securities and investment industry, which has given her campaign committee $224,325.  On the other hand, another female Senator whom I discussed in that same piece, Maria Cantwell of Washington, has been standing firm in opposing attempts to leave some giant loopholes in Senator Blanche Lincoln’s amendment concerning derivatives trading reform.  The Huffington Post described how Harry Reid attempted to use cloture to push the financial reform bill to a vote before any further amendments could have been added to strengthen the bill.  Notice how “the usual suspects” – Reid, Chuck Schumer and “Countrywide Chris” Dodd tried to close in on Cantwell and force her capitulation to the will of the kleptocracy:

There were some unusually Johnsonian moments of wrangling on the floor during the nearly hour-long vote.  Reid pressed his case hard on Snowe, the lone holdout vote present, with Bob Corker and Mitch McConnell at her side.  After finding Brown, he put his arm around him and shook his head, then found Cantwell seated alone at the opposite end of the floor.  He and New York’s Chuck Schumer encircled her, Reid leaning over her with his right arm on the back of her chair and Schumer leaning in with his left hand on her desk.  Cantwell stared straight ahead, not looking at the men even as she spoke.  Schumer called in Chris Dodd, who was unable to sway her.  Feingold hadn’t stuck around.  Cantwell, according to a spokesman, wanted a guarantee on an amendment that would fix a gaping hole in the derivatives section of the bill, which requires the trades to be cleared, but applies no penalty to trades that aren’t, making Blanche Lincoln’s reform package little better than a list of suggestions.

*   *   *

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to cut off good consumer amendments because of cloture,” said Cantwell on Tuesday night.

Other amendments offered by Democrats would ban banks from proprietary trading, cap ATM fees at 50 cents, impose new limits on the payday lending industry, prohibit naked credit default swaps and reinstate Glass-Steagall regulations that prohibit banks from owning investment firms.

“We need to eliminate the risk posed to our economy by ‘too big to fail’ financial firms and to reinstate the protective firewalls between Main Street banks and Wall Street firms,” said Feingold in a statement after the vote.  Feingold supported the amendment to reinstate Glass-Steagall, among others.

“Unfortunately, these key reforms are not included in the bill,” he said.  “The test for this legislation is a simple one — whether it will prevent another financial crisis.  As the bill stands, it fails that test.  Ending debate on the bill is finishing before the job is done.”

Russ Feingold’s criticisms of the bill were consistent with those voiced by economist Nouriel Roubini (often referred to as “Doctor Doom” because he was one of the few economists to anticipate the scale of the financial crisis).  Barbara Stcherbatcheff of CNBC began her report on Dr. Roubini’s May 18 speech with this statement:

Current efforts to reform financial regulation are “cosmetic” and won’t prevent another crisis, economist Nouriel Roubini told an audience on Tuesday at the London School of Economics.

The current mid-term primary battles have fueled a never-ending stream of commentary following the same narrative:  The wrath of the anti-incumbency movement shall be felt in Washington.  Nevertheless, Dylan Ratigan seems to be the only television commentator willing to include “opposition to financial reform” as a political liability for Congressional incumbents.  Yves Smith raised the issue on her Naked Capitalism website with an interesting essay focused on this theme:

Why have political commentators been hesitant to connect the dots between the “no incumbent left standing” movement and the lack of meaningful financial reform?

Her must-read analysis of the “head fakes” going on within the financial reform wrangling concludes with this thought:

So despite the theatrics in Washington, I recommend lowering your expectations greatly for the result of financial reform efforts.  There have been a few wins (for instance, the partial success of the Audit the Fed push), but other measures have for the most part been announced with fanfare and later blunted or excised.  Even though the firestorm of Goldman-related press stiffened the spines of some Senators and produced a late-in-process flurry of amendments, don’t let a blip distract you from the trend line, that as the legislative process proceeds apace, the banks will be able to achieve an outcome that leaves their dubious business models and most important, the rich pay to industry incumbents, largely intact.

As always, it’s up to the voting public with the short memory to unseat those tools of the banking lobby.  Our only alternative is to prepare for the next financial crisis.



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Senator Cantwell Stands Tough

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February 8, 2010

Back in June of 2008, when it became obvious that Hillary Clinton would not win the nomination as the Democratic Party’s Presidential candidate, Clinton’s despondent female supporters lamented that they would never see a woman elected President within their own lifetimes.  At that point, I wrote a piece entitled, “Women To Watch”, reminding readers that “there are a number of women presently in the Senate, who got there without having been married to a former President (whose surname could be relied upon for recognition purposes).”  One of those women, whom I discussed in that essay, was Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington.  Since that time, Senator Cantwell has proven herself as a defender of her constituents and an opponent of Wall Street.  Her bold criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of the economic crisis as well as her vocal opposition to the influence of lobbyists, motivated me to write a second piece about Senator Cantwell in November of 2009.  More recently, she voted against the confirmation of Ben Bernanke’s nomination to a second term as Federal Reserve chair and on February 2, Reuters reported that she was taking a stand against loopholes in proposed financial reform legislation.

On February 7, Les Blumenthal of the McLatchy Newspapers saw fit to highlight Senator Cantwell’s efforts at backing-up with real action, her tough stand against Wall Street:

To hear Sen. Maria Cantwell talk, another economic bubble is building as Wall Street banks — backed by taxpayer bailouts — continue to play the high-risk derivatives markets rather than extend credit to struggling businesses on Main Street.

Cantwell says that Congress and the Obama administration are just watching it happen.

*   *   *

“We are trying to keep the focus on what needs to be done to get credit flowing and avoid another bubble,” Cantwell said in an interview.  “Do I wish the White House team was more attuned to these issues?  Yes.”

*   *   *

White House officials have, at least twice, backed off commitments they made to her that they’d push for tougher regulations, Cantwell said.

“Their economic team is not living up to what they said they would,” Cantwell said.

Her criticism of the financial regulatory reform bill passed by the House — as being “riddled with loopholes” — was reminiscent of the widespread reaction to the disappointing failure of the Democrats to pass any significant healthcare reform legislation:

If the bills emerging from committees aren’t tough enough, Cantwell vowed a floor fight.  She said she had support from half a dozen senators, including Democrats Dianne Feinstein of California, Tom Harkin of Iowa, and Carl Levin of Michigan.

“People are going to have to ask themselves what’s better — a weak bill or no bill?” she said.

At a time when her peers are busy selling out to lobbyists, Senator Cantwell is continuing to reinforce her image as a reformer.  Her February 4 exchange with “Turbo” Tim Geithner, during his appearance before the Senate Finance Committee, was an example of the type of challenge that other Democrats are afraid to publicly vocalize when addressing members of the administration.  Cantwell emphasized that the President has the authority to act on his own (by issuing an Executive Order) to make $30 billion available to community banks, rather than waiting for Congress to pass legislation for such a rescue.  Her home state’s Lake Stevens Journal discussed that moment:

“If we don’t implement change right now, we are going to lose more jobs,” Cantwell told Geithner.  “Do not wait for legislation.  Come to terms with the community banks on reasonable terms that they can agree to — and I think that that we will be well on our way to getting Americans back to work.”

Maria Cantwell continues to exhibit a (sadly) unique toughness in standing up to those forces bent on preserving the destructive status quo.  As disgruntled supporters of Hillary Clinton wonder whether her intention to step down as Secretary of State in 2012 could signal another opportunity to elect America’s first female President —  they would be well-advised to consider Senator Cantwell as their best hope for reaching that historic milestone.



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Maria Cantwell In The Spotlight

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November 9, 2009

Meghan McCain’s recent lament in The Daily Beast struck me as rather strange.  She really should know better.  Ms. McCain expressed her frustration over mainstream media treatment of “two of the most prominent women in politics — Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin”.  Ms. McCain felt the coverage received by those two politicians has been so misogynistic that she has nearly given up on the possibility that she may ever see a woman get elected to the Presidency:

It seems to me the male-dominated media suffers from a Goldilocks Syndrome that keeps women from shattering the glass ceiling.  Worse, I fear it will prevent tomorrow’s female leaders from even seeking office.

Of course, if one can see no further than Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin when seeking female Presidential candidates, then despair is inevitable.  In the summer of 2008, after Ms.Clinton faced up to the reality that Barack Obama had won the Democratic nomination, we heard similar doubts expressed by many despondent female supporters of Hillary Clinton — that they would never see a female elected President within their own lifetimes.  At that point, I wrote apiece entitled “Women To Watch”, reminding readers that “there are a number of women presently in the Senate, who got there without having been married to a former President (whose surname could be relied upon for recognition purposes).”  One of those women, whom I discussed at that time, was Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington.  Maria Cantwell has been in the news quite a bit recently and the coverage has been favorable.  As I said in June of 2008, those holding out hope for a female Presidential candidate should keep an eye on her.

In our highly-partisan political climate, one rarely hears a national politician break from “party line” rhetoric and talking points while being interviewed by the news media or when writing commentary pieces for news publications and blogs.  Nevertheless, Senator Cantwell has taken the bold step of criticizing, not only the administration’s handling of the economic crisis, but the K Street payoff culture enlisting her fellow Democrats as enablers of the status quo.

On October 30, Senator Cantwell wrote a piece for The Huffington Post, decrying the fact that those financial institutions benefiting from the massive bailouts from TARP and the Federal Reserve “have resumed their old habit of using other people’s money to gamble with the same risky unregulated derivatives that led us into this crisis.”  The reason for the failure at every level of the federal government to even consider appropriate legislation or regulations to rein-in continuing irresponsible behavior by those institutions was candidly discussed by the Senator:

Look no further than the powerful lobbying arm of the financial services sector, which has spent at least $220 million this year lobbying Congress to stave off new rules to prevent another collapse.  That is over $500,000 in lobbying for every member of Congress, which might help explain why, to date, nothing has been fixed in our porous financial regulatory system.  Americans want to know when Congress will put an end to the Wall Street’s secret off-book gambling schemes and restore our capitalist system by requiring real transparency and true competition.

Senator Cantwell’s essay is essential reading, coming on the heels of a rebuke, by her fellow Democrats, against efforts at requiring transparency in the trading of credit default swaps:

Imposing full transparency and true competition will require moving derivative trades onto regulated exchanges.  That would mean full transparency of trading prices and volumes, reporting requirements for large trader positions, and adequate capital reserves to protect against a default.  The government needs full anti-fraud and anti-manipulation authority.  Giving regulators this power will ensure a transparent and competitive marketplace and will ensure that violators will go to jail.

On November 2, Senator Cantwell appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Meeting with Dylan Ratigan.  At that time, Mr. Ratigan had just written a piece for The Business Insider, expressing his outrage about recent statements by Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner, supporting House bank reform legislation allowing credit default swaps to continue being traded in secret.  Since Senator Cantwell had previously discussed that subject with him on October 16, Mr. Ratigan focused on Geithner.  Ratigan noted Geithner’s endorsement of the proposed House “banking  reform” legislation on the previous day’s broadcast of Meet The Press — despite the bill’s “massive exemptions” allowing opacity in the trading of credit default swaps.  Ratigan then asked Senator Cantwell why Tim Geithner still has a job, to which she replied:

I’m not sure because David Gregory had him almost — trying to get a straight answer out of him.  What the Treasury Secretary basically said was:  yes, banks should take more risks and we should continue the loopholes — and that is really appalling because, right now, we know that lack of transparency has caused this problem with the U.S. economy and Wall Street is continuing, one year later, continuing the same kind of loopholes.  And so if the Treasury Secretary doesn’t come down hard against these loopholes and advocate foreclosing them, then we’re going to have a tough time closing them in Congress.  So the Treasury Secretary is dodging the issue.

Senator Cantwell sure isn’t dodging any issues.  Beyond that, she is demonstrating that she has more cajones than any of her male counterparts in the Senate.  So far, all of the publicity concerning her position on financial reform has been favorable.  After all, she is boldly standing up to the lobbyists, the Congress they own and a White House that received nearly a million dollars in campaign contributions from Goldman Sachs.

Back in Senator Cantwell’s home state of Washington, The Seattle Times praised her co-sponsorship of Senate Bill 823, the Net Operating Loss Carryback Act, which has already been passed by both houses of Congress.  This bill increases the corporate income tax refunds for businesses that were making money during the pre-2008 era but now operate at a loss.  As the Seattle Times editorial explained:

The national unemployment rate is still rising.  It has just gone double-digit for the first time in 26 years, and is at 10.2 percent.

This is not recovery.

The new law does not have taxpayers underwrite credit default swaps or any of the other alchemic creations of Wall Street investment banks.  It is not more aid and comfort for the nationalized and quasi-nationalized corporate giants; it specifically exempts Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and any company in which the Treasury has recently become an owner.

This law is for the businesses that suffer in the recession, not the ones that caused it.  It is one of the few things Congress has done that reaches directly to Main Street America. It is a big deal to many local businesses, including businesses here.

Congratulations, Senator Cantwell!

To Meghan McCain and other women remaining in doubt as to whether they will ever see a female sworn in as President:  Just keep watching Maria Cantwell as she continues to earn well-deserved respect.



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Hillary Delivers The Goods

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August 28, 2008

Like many critics of Hillary Clinton’s performance during this Primary season, I was very skeptical about whether she would deliver a whole-hearted endorsement of Barack Obama at the Democratic Convention.  My reaction to her speech on Tuesday night was similar to what I heard from the voices in my TV.  My first exclamation at the close of her speech, was:  “Out of the park and 300 feet above Waveland Avenue, all the way across!”  Keith Olbermann’s voice then came out of the TV, saying: “Grand Slam!” repeatedly.  After a minute, David Gregory asked New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson to critique the speech.  Richardson described it as “a 500-foot home run”.

After hearing her speech, I felt motivated to apologize for publicly doubting her loyalty to the Democratic Party.  She really did “deliver the goods” by giving what was, perhaps, her best speech on the campaign stump.  Although many of us were surprised by the substance of her speech, I was particularly impressed by her delivery.  Hillary had always addressed her audiences with Lieberman-esque stiffness.  Imagine someone saying “let us go forward” with a groaning, insincere tone for the 10,000th time.  That was the way Hillary used to speak.  In defeat, she really did find her voice.  Although she claimed that happened after her “close call” in New Hampshire, I believe that deep in her heart, she must have known she would not really find her voice until she would be completely vanquished in this campaign.  Once the weight of the world was (literally) lifted off her shoulders, she was able to freely and candidly express herself to the voters.  She needs to review the videos of this speech to reinforce her better public speaking skills, as an example of “how it is done properly”.  The look in Bill’s eyes told the story:  Hillary had finally cultivated her public speaking skills to the level where they belong.  Right on the heels of the Summer Olympics, where we saw so many American women win so many medals, we saw an American woman who ran for the Presidency, delivering a solid performance for Team U.S.A.  I’m sure the audience saw it this way and it was reflected in the sports metaphors used by so many, expressing their reactions to this speech.

I was glad to see the individuals mentioned in my “Women To Watch” article (June 19) behind the podium during the first two days of this Convention.  At the Republican Convention, we will not see this many women speaking, unless they run some sort of “Abortion Confessional” feature.  (John Waters would be the perfect director for such a piece.)

Bill Clinton’s only challenge at this Convention was to show that he still has “the old magic”.  It was not unlike an extended, Keith Richards guitar solo at a Rolling Stones concert.  All he had to do was go out and give the audience a little of the old  …  “little of the old”.   It worked.  Bill was back with his unique ability to enrapture a crowd.  The audience responded warmly to him.

By this point in the Democratic Convention, no speaker had yet really slaughtered John McCain or the Republicans to the extent many Democrats had anticipated.  Patrick Buchanan of MSNBC voiced his criticism that McCain had been “getting a free ride” at this Convention.  His remark drew a round of applause from the largely-Democratic, outdoor crowd at Union Station in Denver.

Finally, Joe Biden stepped up to serve the audience some petit filet mignon.  Democrats aren’t big on red meat.  They’re mostly a “fish” crowd, preferring high levels of mercury over the risk of colon cancer.  The avoidance of “red meat” had been obvious all week.  It was beginning to show.  Had the arugula vegans taken over Obama’s campaign once and for all?  Biden gave the Convention program just what it needed:  some hardball pitches at McCain’s failed foreign policy positions, contrasted with Obama’s foreign policy ideas, some of which were ratified by the Bush Administration even after McCain had dissed them as nonsense.

For his part, Obama educated his Republican critics about the characterization of him as a “celebrity”.  They just can’t get a handle on it.  On Wednesday night, Obama made it clear that he is not just a celebrity …  He’s an “M.C.”  (This means “master of ceremonies” to all of us still using SPF 30 sunscreen in late August.)  “M.C. Barack” had things under control by the end of Wednesday night.  Let’s see how he does on Thursday.