House, Senate leaders finalize details of sweeping financial overhaul
By Brady Dennis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 25, 2010; 11:36 AM
Key House and Senate lawmakers approved far-reaching new financial rules early Friday after weeks of division, delay and frantic last-minute dealmaking. The dawn compromise set up a potential vote in both houses of Congress next week that could send the landmark legislation to President Obama by July 4.
The final and most arduous compromise began to fall into place just after midnight. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) agreed to scale back a controversial provision that would have forced the nation’s biggest banks to spin off their lucrative derivatives-dealing businesses.
The panel also reached accord on the “Volcker rule,” named after former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker. That measure would bar banks from trading with their own money, a practice known as proprietary trading.
Lawmakers pulled an all-nighter, wrapping up their work at 5:39 a.m. — more than 20 messy, mind-numbing hours after they began Thursday morning.
“It’s a great moment. I’m proud to have been here,” said a teary-eyed Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee led the effort in the Senate. “No one will know until this is actually in place how it works. But we believe we’ve done something that has been needed for a long time. It took a crisis to bring us to the point where we could actually get this job done.”
Both the House and Senate must approve the compromise legislation before it can go to Obama for his signature.
Despite myriad changes in recent days, Democrats appear poised to deliver a final bill that largely reflects the administration’s original blueprint unveiled almost precisely a year ago. Although it would not fundamentally alter the shape of Wall Street or break up the nation’s largest firms, the legislation would establish broad new oversight of the financial system.
A new consumer protection bureau housed in the Federal Reserve would have independent funding, an independent leader and near-total autonomy to write and enforce rules. The government would have broad new powers to seize and wind down large, failing financial firms and to oversee the $600 trillion derivatives market. In addition, a council of regulators, headed by the Treasury secretary, would monitor the financial landscape for potential systemic risks.
“The finish line is in sight. The bill that has emerged from conference is strong,” Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner said in a statement early Friday. “It will offer families the protections they deserve, help safeguard their financial security and give the businesses of America access to the credit they need to expand and innovate.”
Obama, speaking to reporters before leaving for a meeting of global finance ministers and central bankers in Toronto, said the compromise legislation includes “90 percent of what I proposed when I took up this fight.”
The president said he is committed to a “strong, robust financial sector” but wants to curb abuses and tighten oversight to make the financial system more transparent and safe.
“The reforms making their way through Congress will hold Wall Street accountable,” Obama said, “so we can help prevent another financial crisis like the one that we’re still recovering from.”
On the House side, the final tally was 20 to 11 to approve the conference committee’s report. On the Senate side, it was 7 to 5. The votes fell along party lines, earning no support from Republicans on the two panels.
Asked whether he expected the compromise legislation to pass the full Senate — which on May 20 approved an earlier version, 59-39, with support from four Republicans — Obama replied, “You bet.”
Republican lawmakers who serve on the financial panels blasted the compromise bill. “This legislation is a failure on both counts,” Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said in a statement that denounced the compromise as failing to address “shoddy underwriting practices” or problems with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. “It will not encourage much-needed stability and confidence in our financial markets. It will not significantly reduce systemic risk in our financial sector.”
Lincoln’s provision on derivatives had for months remained a particularly thorny issue for Democrats, causing internal divisions that threatened to derail the massive legislation.
Although consumer advocates and many liberals supported her provision, it encountered stiff opposition from the Obama administration and some regulators, as well as from an influential bloc of moderate Democrats and House Democrats from New York, where much of the financial derivatives industry is concentrated.
Administration officials and Democratic leaders worked fervently to bridge the divide between Lincoln and those House Democrats. Top Treasury officials, including Deputy Secretary Neal Wolin and Michael Barr, an assistant secretary, roamed the Dirksen office building alongside White House economic adviser Diana Farrell, conferring with aides and key lawmakers. Gary Gensler, chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, worked the committee room throughout Thursday.
Lincoln came and went from the hearing room, meeting with members of the centrist New Democrat Coalition to try to find common ground and huddling with Dodd (D-Conn.); Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee; and other lawmakers.
In the very early morning hours Friday, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) — chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and a Lincoln supporter — introduced a proposal that would compel banks to spin off only their riskiest derivatives trades, including particular forms of credit-default swaps, which are complex financial bets that exacerbated the financial crisis.
At the same time, the proposal would allow banks to hold onto certain derivatives trading related to interest rates, currency rates, gold and silver. They also would be allowed to continue trading in derivatives in order to hedge against their own risks.
Under the compromise, the derivatives operations that firms spin out of their federally insured banks could still be retained in a separately capitalized affiliate. In addition, firms would have two years to institute the new rules.
The Senate agreed to the compromise language just after 2:30 a.m.
The cavernous Dirksen 106 conference room remained packed at that hour, but it was a chaotic and cluttered mass of humanity. Lawmakers had stopped trying to conceal their yawns. Aides who had worn down their BlackBerry batteries recharged them for the home stretch. Trash cans spilled over with coffee cups and sandwich wrappers. Empty Fritos bags and plastic Diet Coke bottles littered the room, along with reams of paper — old amendments, new amendments, handwritten amendments, amendments to amendments.
“So much for the paperless society,” Frank quipped at one point.
In reaching a deal on the Volcker rule, negotiators adopted a provision that mirrors language previously offered by Sens. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), which would ban certain forms of proprietary trading and forbid firms from betting against securities they sell to clients. The Merkley-Levin measure never got a vote on the Senate floor.
“One goal of these limits is to reduce participation in high-risk activity that can cause significant losses at institutions which are central to the financial system,” Dodd said. “A second goal is to end the use of low-cost funds, to which insured depositories have access, from subsidizing high-risk activity.”
Under the agreement, firms would have up to two years to scale back their proprietary trading and investments in hedge funds and private equity funds. Banks also would be barred from betting against their clients on certain investments deals.
Even as they worked to toughen the Volcker language, lawmakers agreed to an exemption at the behest of Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), one of the four Republicans who voted for the earlier version of the financial regulation bill.
Brown, whose state is a hub of the asset-management industry, wanted the bill to allow banks to invest at least a small amount of capital in hedge funds and private equity investments. The measure would prohibit a banks from investing more than 3 percent of their capital in private equity or hedge funds. It was one of a number of provisions tailored to hold onto key votes as the bill heads toward final passage.
Lawmakers squared away a handful of other lingering issues late Thursday and early Friday.
They agreed to exempt the nation’s 18,000 auto dealers from oversight by a new consumer financial protection watchdog, a striking legislative victory for one of the nation’s most influential lobbying groups and a blow to consumer advocates and Democratic leaders who had long opposed such a loophole. “It is time for people like myself to concede that the votes are not there to give the consumer regulator any role in this,” Frank said.
Lawmakers also voted to give shareholders more of a say on corporate governance, to place new restrictions on mortgage lending and to levy a risk-based assessment on large financial firms to help pay for the wide-ranging bill, which the Congressional Budget Office has estimated would cost nearly $20 billion over the next decade.
Weary lawmakers wrapped up their work just after sunrise, only hours before Obama was scheduled to leave for Canada. Both Dodd and Frank said they hoped the passage of the legislation by their committees will help the United States lead the ongoing global effort to harmonize new financial safeguards.
“We’ve put in the hands of the president a very powerful set of tools for him to reassert American leadership in the world,” Frank said.
One of the last motions Friday was to name the bill after the two chairmen, who had shepherded the legislation through the House and the Senate over the past year. At 5:07 a.m., they agreed unanimously that it would be known as the Dodd-Frank bill, and the sound of applause echoed down the empty hallways.