Wall Street Riders Plague Congress’ Year-End Spending Bill

The financial industry has taken a close interest in the congressional struggle to refund the government. Where others find dysfunction, Wall Street sees opportunity.

The big banks and their lobbyists are quietly but aggressively pushing a long wish list of spending bill “riders.” These backdoor measures would roll back the reforms enacted after the 2008 financial crisis and undermine the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the first and only financial oversight agency with a mandate to put the interests of consumers ahead of the power and profits of the banks.

This is an industry that has never made much of a secret of its disdain for rules of fair play. Now a disturbing number of legislators have embraced the same contemptuous attitude by lining up behind the use of “must pass” bills to advance Wall Street’s agenda. To counter their effort, financial reformers will need to work hard to expose and oppose the spending riders – and the lawmakers supporting them.

The threat is serious. The rider strategy has worked for Wall Street in the past, notably at the end of 2014, when a massive spending bill turned out to include an amendment repealing a key piece of the Dodd-Frank Act – a provision requiring the riskiest derivatives trades made by bank holding companies to be conducted outside the units that hold deposits and enjoy the benefits of deposit insurance.

This time around, Wall Street has even bigger aspirations. One of the many riders it’s promoting is hundreds of pages long, with subsections that would (among other things) make it easier to issue toxic mortgages like those that helped bring on the financial crisis; force financial regulators to go through a series of new and redundant procedures before issuing rules or taking enforcement actions; and, under the guise of relief for “community banks,” deregulate a wide swath of institutions up to and including the likes of Wells Fargo.

That particular package of proposals was originally a bill authored by Senate banking committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala. Unable to convince the Senate to consider his legislation through normal channels, Shelby has now publicly stated that the appropriations process (with the implied threat of a government shutdown) offers the “best shot” of getting it enacted.

In another priority attack, the major Wall Street brokerage houses and the big insurance companies hope to derail the Department of Labor’s efforts to safeguard Americans against conflicted retirement investment advice – “advice” that costs us an estimated $17 billion a year. Yet another spending rider would block the Department of Education from cutting off the flow of federal loan money to for-profit career colleges like Corinthian and ITT Tech, which have saddled countless students with crippling debt for worthless degrees. Still other riders would make it harder for nonprofit groups to challenge discriminatory housing and mortgage-lending practices.

A number of these proposals are squarely aimed at the Consumer Bureau. The bureau has earned the ire of Wall Street by delivering more than $11.2 billion in relief to more than 25.5 million Americans defrauded by financial companies. In response, the financial industry is working with its friends in Congress on spending riders that would bring the bureau under the congressional appropriations process and end its guaranteed funding through the Federal Reserve, while, at the same time, placing it under the thumb of a five-member commission chosen by party leaders – a proven recipe for regulatory gridlock – instead of a single director, as Dodd-Frank stipulated.

Other possible dangers are riders that would block or impede the bureau’s specific ability to act against discriminatory auto lending, triple-digit-interest payday-style loans and the financial industry’s use of take-it-or-leave-it agreements to bar consumers from joining forces over a common complaint.

The industry’s agenda is far-reaching. But the riders all share a common purpose: They would make it easier for banks and financial companies to exploit us, whether by cheating consumers, engaging in reckless bets or using taxpayer subsidies to generate windfall profits for a handful of giant institutions and a narrow financial elite.

One more thing these measures have in common: Financial interests are trying to push them into the budget because they would not look good as stand-alone measures that had to be debated in the light of day. In a joint letter to Congress last week, 166 consumer, labor, civil rights, community and faith-based organizations pointed out that a large majority Americans, regardless of political party, want financial regulation to be tougher not weaker; that finding, borne out by repeated polls, was most recently confirmed by a Washington Post/ABC News survey on the presidential contest, in which 67 percent of the respondents (58 percent of Republicans, 68 percent of independents and 72 percent of Democrats) said they would back a candidate calling for stricter financial regulation, while only 24 percent said they would back a candidate opposing stricter regulation.

Congress must reject the use of budget amendments and other undemocratic tactics to advance a special-interest agenda. To make sure it does, the rest of us must convince our lawmakers that we, too, are watching.

— Jim Lardner

Originally published on USNews.com

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