Lobbyists hover over Wall Street rules changes


First published in Newsday

For those of us who wonder whether Washington can erect sufficient safeguards against a future global financial meltdown, the news this week is hopeful.

The Center for Responsive Politics, an organization that tracks spending by big lobbying groups, says that Wall Street and the financial industry spent more trying to influence Washington in the first three months of 2011 than during the same period last year.

Maybe that doesn't sound like a good sign, but where there's cash, there's agita. The $27 million shelled out this year by banks, credit unions, investment firms and their trade groups signals concern that the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 -- also known as Dodd-Frank -- will be strict.

Lobbying is up 2.7 percent, which is remarkable considering how much lobbying was going on last year, when the bill was in the heat of a Congressional debate. Lobbyists' focus has shifted to the regulatory agencies drafting the details -- expected to stretch to 5,000 pages by the time the law takes effect in July.

As the pressure mounts in the next few weeks, Americans should keep a careful watch over the process. This is an industry with a particularly strong influence -- and one that hasn't paid much of a price for the damage it's caused. The industry's intensified lobbying effort doesn't hint at a Wall Street that's chastened. Quite the opposite.

Michigan Democrat Sen. Carl Levin has just produced a report saying that Goldman Sachs executives may have misled Congress about the company's mortgage stock bets at the expense of the firm's clients. Yet the report has sparked little outcry -- save for that of hypercritic former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, now a CNN pundit, who said that Attorney General Eric Holder should resign if he does not pursue criminal charges against Goldman.

For most of Washington, though, it appears sometimes that "saving" the financial industry is more important than equal treatment under the law.

"We're going through Dodd-Frank literally line by line," said Rep. Michael Grimm (R-Staten Island), a freshman who campaigned on now-distant tea party promises to slash government spending and stop economic bailout efforts. "We don't want to be a burden on a sector that quite frankly is extremely important," he said.

Grimm is a member of the House Financial Services Committee, which is considering an industry-friendly bill that would delay implementation of rules on derivatives trading -- that wellspring of toxic assets that were so instrumental in the 2008 housing market crash.

Another bill would water down the structure of the nascent Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, replacing a single director with a five-person commission. The commission would include a maximum of three from each political party. Hello, gridlock.

The most pitched battle is over a cap on debit card swipe fees, a business that ballooned to $16.2 billion in 2009 as people have come to rely on plastic for everyday purchases. Banks and credit card companies charge retailers a fee every time someone uses a debit or prepaid card, and businesses pass those costs on to consumers through generally higher prices. All in all, it has a depressing effect on an already sluggish economy.

The average debit card transaction costs only about 4 cents to process, yet banks, MasterCard and Visa charge store owners about 44 cents per transaction. Regulators recommend a 12-cent maximum fee, which they believe is "reasonable and proportional" to the actual cost.

But reasonable and proportional may be alien concepts for people who are spending $9 million a month in campaign money, constituent visits, endorsement letters and media campaigns in legislators' home districts. Brazen -- now that's more like it.