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Cloudy Future for FinReg a Question of Incentives

To those freaking out about the seeming lack of votes all of a sudden for the Wall Street reform bill, I’d say that the picture isn’t quite so dire. Sometime after the July 4 recess, Gov. Joe Manchin will pick a replacement for Robert Byrd, one that can be expected to show up to vote, more than could be assured for Byrd in the later years of his life. That vote will almost certainly be a vote for Dodd-Frank. So Byrd’s passing isn’t the problem, it’ll just create a delay. We’re probably looking at mid-July for final passage.

As for Scott Brown, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins seemingly flipping their votes because of the bank tax, let’s make clear that neither of them have actually ruled out a yes vote. Only Russ Feingold, facing a re-election campaign where he has put his vote against TARP front and center, has formally opposed, and from the left. Cantwell and Grassley, who voted against cloture, remain in play. And for Brown, Snowe and Collins, the incentives all bend toward being undecided right now. It may not mean anything for this bill, but they can probably get a concession down the road. Sure, a strong Majority Leader would tell Brown, who got virtually everything he wanted out of the conference committee process, that if he wanted to pass any bill through the Senate in the future he would sign on and quickly, but we don’t have a strong Majority Leader. So there’s little downside in keeping things vague at the moment.

In the end, given the popularity of the concept of financial reform, there will eventually be a lot of pressure on Snowe, Brown and Collins to capitulate. And if Cantwell and Grassley flip, only one of those three will be needed.

This is instructive for how completely unserious “deficit hawks” are about the deficit. The bank levy in the conference report is infinitesimally small, and required to meet paygo demands. But it hurts friends of the GOP, so all of a sudden they’re deficit spenders. Barney Frank rightly challenged them to identify what they would use to offset the $19 billion in spending in the bill. Snowe, Collins and other deficit peacocks are very concerned about it until you actually try to raise money.

As to whether this bill will make a real difference in how Wall Street operates, read Arthur Levitt:

On reports that this is the biggest financial reform since the Great Depression …

“I think that’s ridiculous. Whatever changes were made were made at the margins.”

He does think that derivatives reform in the hands of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission under Gary Gensler could make a big difference, however.

UPDATE: Just to back up Gensler’s point – banks could have until 2022 to comply with the Volcker rule.

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David Dayen

David Dayen