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The Fight for Financial Reform

These next few months are a time of reckoning.

Every so often in American political history, a window for change opens, and the combination of crisis, leadership, and political movement makes big, positive reforms possible.

That window is open now--but barely--and if we don't act quickly the protectors of the status quo (aka lobbyists, Republicans, and so-called moderate Democrats will succeed in slamming it shut again.

The needed reforms are clear: affordable health care for all; a targeted jobs program and a humane, effective way to quell the tsunami of foreclosures; and a reorganized, re-regulated Wall Street that gets back to the essential business of investing in the real economy.

When it comes to making crucial financial reforms, we face a determined, well-heeled opposition that will wage a fierce battle every step of the way. As Alan Blinder describes in a recent New York Times op-ed , "The money at stake is mind-boggling, and one financial industry after another will go to the mat to fight any provision that might hurt it." One crucial debate is over the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA)--akin to the fight over the public option as part of health care reform.

The need for a CFPA couldn't be more clear. Right now, responsibility for consumer protection is divided among agencies whose primary concern is the safety and soundness of financial institutions. Further, financial institutions--if regulated at all--not only are a key source of funding for those regulators, but they can also choose which regulator they prefer. Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard Law Professor who also chairs the Congressional Oversight Panel, first developed the idea for a CFPA. She writes , "This regulatory arbitrage has triggered a race to the bottom among prudential regulators and has blocked real consumer protection..."

Warren describes the benefits of the CFPA as bringing "existing federal consumer regulation under one roof", and creating "a home in Washington for people who care about whether families are playing on a level field when they buy financial products.... It will focus on one, driving question: Are consumer financial products explained in a way that consumers can understand and that allows the market to work?" (It must also be said--what a better regulatory landscape we would have if Warren were at Treasury in some substantial way. Naomi Klein calls her "the anti-Summers"; Michael Moore suggests Warren as half of a future presidential ticket. )

The CFPA seems like a no-brainer, but as a recent House Financial Services Committee hearing demonstrated, opponents will say just about anything to kill this proposal.

"Defenders of the status quo have long tried to make financial regulatory reform sound complicated and dangerous," Warren explains. "The result has been lax standards and little oversight."


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Even more threatening to reform efforts are the financial industries' deep pockets: McClatchy Newspapers reports, "The [US] Chamber [of Commerce] said it's spending about $2 million on ads, educational efforts and a grassroots campaign to kill the agency. It said that the grassroots effort has led to more than 23,000 letters sent to Congress to date."

CFPA proponents obviously don't have those kinds of resources. The public will need to be mobilized by its outrage, and as Blinder describes "short attention spans" and the "complex, arcane and...boring" nature of financial regulation, make mobilization an even greater challenge than usual.

That's why the 21st century version of the Pecora Commission--the Senate Banking investigation into the causes of the 1929 Crash named after the chief counsel, Ferdinand Pecora--is so critical. The Pecora Commission exposed the crimes and abuses that led to the stock market crash, galvanizing the public and thereby opening the door to new regulatory reforms. Today's Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) chaired by Phil Angelides was created by Congress and is charged with providing a historical account of what transpired to bring our economy to its knees. The Commission is comprised of six Democrats and four Republicans, and partisanship shouldn't be a problem. Those responsible for the deregulation frenzy and the casino economy are found on both sides of the aisle--there is plenty of blame to go around.

Campaign for America's Future co-director, Robert Borosage, writes, "The Angelides Commission--if it fearlessly lays out the facts, exposes the excesses, the deformed incentives, the frauds and crimes, that are at the root of the current crisis has the potential of playing a similar role to that of Pecora."

Indeed there is an opportunity for understanding what exactly got us into this mess and what is needed for a real recovery replete with smart and effective regulations. In addition to the CFPA, there will need to be new thinking and reform on derivatives, executive pay, credit rating agencies, systemic risk monitoring, the Community Reinvestment Act, Federal Reserve transparency--to name a few areas of concern!

If we don't enact commonsense reforms--what is the alternative?

More "mugging of the common good", as Borosage puts it, as well-funded, well-connected, powerful interests continue to benefit from a stacked deck while the rest of us fend for ourselves.

There was no New Deal without the unions and unemployed councils; without the activists and thinkers who--when FDR told them "go out and make me do it"--did just that. Now is the time to be organized and engaged--online and offline--to push the limits of President Obama's own politics and counter the forces of money which are, as always, obstacles to a people's recovery.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel is an American editor and publisher. She is the editor, publisher, and part-owner of the magazine The Nation. She has been the magazine's editor since 1995.


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