By Gary Rivlan
The Nation, April 30, 2013
The mood was triumphant on the morning of July 21, 2010, when Barack Obama, not quite two years into his presidency, strode to a podium inside the Ronald Reagan Building, a few blocks from the White House. As he prepared to sign the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act—the sweeping legislative package designed to prevent another spectacular financial collapse—into law, the president first acknowledged the miracle of having a bill to sign at all. “Passing this…was no easy task,” he told the crowd of hundreds. “We had to overcome the furious lobbying of an array of powerful interest groups and a partisan minority determined to block change.”
Indeed, some 3,000 lobbyists had swarmed the Capitol in hopes of killing off pieces of the proposed bill—nearly six lobbyists for every member of Congress. For Michael Barr, then an assistant secretary at the Treasury Department, the trench warfare spurred by Dodd-Frank left him shellshocked. “You pick a page at random,” says Barr, now a law professor at the University of Michigan, “and I’ll tell you about all the issues on that page where the fighting was intense.” Remarkably, despite the onslaught, Dodd-Frank “got stronger rather than weaker the closer we got to passage, which is incredibly unusual,” says Lisa Donner, executive director of Americans for Financial Reform, one of a handful of advocacy groups that fought tenaciously for the bill.
That sense of victory barely lasted barely the morning. The same financial behemoths that had fought so ferociously to block Dodd-Frank were not going to let the mere fact of the bill’s passage ruin their plans. “Halftime,” shrugged Scott Talbott, chief lobbyist for the Financial Services Roundtable, a lobbying group representing 100 of the country’s largest financial institutions. It was 5:30 am on a Friday when a joint House-Senate conference committee approved the bill’s final language. By Sunday, an industry lawyer named Annette Nazareth—a former top official at the Securities and Exchange Commission whose firm counts JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs among its clients—had already sent off a heavily annotated copy of the 848-page bill to colleagues at her old agency. According to a congressional staffer whose boss was a key architect of Dodd-Frank, Nazareth is one of two “generals” running the campaign to undo the bill. The other is Eugene Scalia, a fearsome litigator and son of the Supreme Court justice.
After Dodd-Frank’s passage, lobbyists for the big banks and industry trade groups divided themselves into eighteen working groups, each organized around a different element of the new law. “That’s when the real work began,” Talbott tells me. One working group focused on derivatives reform, including the requirement that these complex financial instruments now be sold on open exchanges in the fashion of stocks and bonds. Another focused on efforts to hammer out the so-called Volcker Rule, which would limit the ability of federally insured banks to wager on risky ventures. A third tackled the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), created to protect ordinary consumers from Wall Street deceptions involving mortgages, credit cards and other major profit centers for the banks.
In the months leading up to Dodd-Frank’s passage, the big story was the staggering sums of money being spent by the industry to defeat the bill—more than $1 billion on lobbying alone, according to one estimate. Yet, incredibly, the financial sector dramatically increased its spending after Dodd-Frank was signed. Whereas commercial banks such as Wells Fargo, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase, along with their trade groups, spent $55 million lobbying in 2010 (the year Dodd-Frank became law), they would collectively spend $61 million in 2011 and again in 2012, according to OpenSecrets.org. The twenty-eight lobbyists Talbott has on the payroll at the Financial Services Roundtable makes it relative small fry. The American Bankers Association has ninety-one lobbyists representing its interests, while the US Chamber of Commerce has 183. Goldman Sachs has fifty-one lobbyists, JPMorgan Chase sixty, and even the obscure-sounding Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association is armed to the teeth, hiring the services of forty-nine lobbyists.
Even so, those numbers don’t begin to capture the army of people being paid exorbitant sums to beat back reform. “The lobbyists are just the point of the spear,” said Ed Mierzwinski, director of consumer programs for the US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). “There are also the regulatory lawyers, the research staffs, the PR people and all those loyal think tank supporters shilling for the banks.”
Dodd-Frank’s Achilles’ heel is that it leaves the tough work of writing the actual regulations to existing federal agencies like the Federal Reserve and the Securities and Exchange Commission, which had failed so miserably at protecting the public interest in the run-up to the 2008 crash, as well as to backwater independent agencies like the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), which was tasked with regulating a derivatives market that played a central role in the collapse of the global economy.
The story of how Wall Street lobbyists worked the halls of Congress, blocking the appointment of Elizabeth Warren, Obama’s first choice to head the CFPB, or pushing bills aimed at defanging Dodd-Frank, is fairly well-known by now. But it was the stealthy work of battalions of regulatory lawyers, who descended on the private offices of regulators deep inside the bureaucracy, that has proven more crucial to the industry’s effort to pick off pieces of Dodd-Frank. There, a kind of ground war has been going on for almost three years, with the regulators waging hand-to-hand combat to defend every clause and comma in Dodd-Frank, and the lawyers fighting to insert any loophole they can to protect their clients’ extraordinary profits. This is how the miracle that was the making of Dodd-Frank—hailed as the most comprehensive financial reform since the 1930s—became a slow-moving horror movie called “The Unmaking of Dodd-Frank”: a perfect case study of the ways an industry with nearly unlimited resources can avoid a set of tough-minded reforms it doesn’t like.