What's up with Barack Obama? The candidate for change once promised to take on the powerful banking interests but is now doing their bidding. Finally, a leading Democrat, in this case Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, has a good idea for monitoring the Wall Street fat cats who all but destroyed the American economy, and the Obama administration condemns it.
Dodd wants to take supervisory power from the Federal Reserve, which is controlled by the banks it pretends to monitor, and put it in the hands of a new independent agency. That makes sense given the Fed's abject failure to properly monitor the financial sector over the past decade as that industry got drunk on greed. As Dodd's spokeswoman Kirstin Brost put it: "The Federal Reserve flat out failed at supervising the largest, most complex firms." But White House economic adviser Austan Goolsbee frets that taking power from the Fed would cause financial industry "nervousness." Isn't that the whole point of government regulation-to make the bandits look over their shoulders before they launch their next destructive scam?
Not so in the view of Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin, who blithely insists that the Fed "is the best agency equipped for the task of supervising the largest, most complex firms," despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary. There is some irony in the fact that the largest of those complex firms got to be "too big to fail" because of the radical deregulatory legislation that Wolin drafted during his previous incarnation as the Treasury Department's general counsel in the Clinton administration. Wolin is now deputy to Timothy Geithner, who as head of the New York Fed in the five years preceding the banking meltdown looked the other way as the disaster began to unfold.
Why is Barack Obama allowing these retreads from the Clinton era who went on to great riches on Wall Street to set economic policy for his administration? The fatal hallmark of this president's financial policy is that it is being designed by the very people whose previous legislative efforts created the mess that enriched them while impoverishing the nation, and they now want more of the same.
In the Clinton years, Wolin was general counsel to then-Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, the key architect of the radical deregulation that caused the recent banking collapse. Summers went off to work for hedge funds and banks that paid him $15 million in 2008 while he was advising Obama. Meanwhile, Wolin became general counsel for Hartford Insurance Corp., which had to be bailed out by the taxpayers because it took advantage of the radical deregulation that he helped write into law.
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Wolin, Geithner and Summers were all protégés of Robert Rubin, who, as Clinton's treasury secretary, was the grand author of the strategy of freeing Wall Street firms from their Depression-era constraints. It was Wolin who, at Rubin's behest, became a key force in drafting the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which ended the barrier between investment and commercial banks and insurance companies, thus permitting the new financial behemoths to become too big to fail. Two stunning examples of such giants that had to be rescued with public funds are Citigroup bank, where Rubin went to "earn" $120 million after leaving the Clinton White House, and the Hartford Insurance Co., where Wolin landed after he left Treasury.
Both Citigroup and Hartford would not have gotten into trouble were it not for the enabling legislation that the three Clinton officials pushed through while they were in power. But even with that law, had Geithner been on the case protecting the public interest while head of the New York Fed much of the damage could have been avoided.
Thanks to the legislation that Wolin helped write, the limits preventing mergers between insurance companies and banks imposed during Franklin Roosevelt's presidency was reversed. Hartford got into banking, and as The Washington Times observed in a scathing editorial, "Hartford ... rushed to buy regulated savings and loans just so they could call themselves banks and qualify for government TARP funds." Wolin collected his millions while the taxpayers were obliged to cover Hartford's losses.
It is depressing for a columnist who had great hopes for Obama to be forced by the facts to credit editors at the right-wing Washington Times for getting it right when they opined: "Revolving doors between industry and the administration and fat-cat political contributors getting bailed out at taxpayer expense sound like business as usual. This certainly isn't change we can believe in." Please, Mr. President, say it ain't so.