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It Is Damn Well Time to Shake Off the Bank Lobby

The banking lobby maintains a stranglehold on any realm of U.S. public policy it can loot for a profit.
 
 
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While the national economy struggles under the weight of a massive bank bailout effort, the banking lobby’s ability to influence public policy is more problematic than ever. The too-big-to-fail bankers may be dependent on U.S. taxpayers for their survival, but corporate lobbyists still have members of Congress, the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve asking the banks’ permission to bring the Big Finance behemoths under control. The relationship between Wall Street and the government is so out of whack that it’s difficult to distinguish the political players from the panhandlers.

In Mother Jones, Daniel Schulman and Jonathan Stein detail the ease with which important congressional staff switch careers and move into the banking sector. In recent years, dozens of key staffers for powerful Senators have left the political arena to work for as lobbyists for the financial sector, and policy gurus from both sides of the aisle are jumping ship for lucrative careers as influence peddlers on Wall Street.

“Financial firms seeking big bucks and favorable terms from Congress and the White House are deploying Capitol Hill aides turned lobbyists to win favorable treatment from the congressional lawmakers,” Schulman and Stein write. Many lawmakers, including Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, D-Conn., are refusing to disclose whether they’ve had contact with former staff who now work for Wall Street. Small surprise, then, that so many of the recent bailout packages have allowed failed bank CEOs to stay in power and saved their shareholders from bad investments in inept, even predatory, companies.

Sometimes these reinvented bank defenders are even former Senators. Susan Douglas of In These Times highlights the career of former Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, who is currently a lobbyist for UBS. The Swiss banking giant has been plagued by a seemingly endless stream of scandals over the past year, for everything from diamond smuggling to tax fraud. And Gramm helped push for looser predatory lending laws—including those pertaining to the now-decimated mortgage sector—while he on the UBS payroll.

This would be a shameful legacy for any former public servant, but for Gramm, Douglas notes, this behavior is particularly disgraceful: his two chief legislative “accomplishments” helped create and intensify the current financial crisis. Gramm co-authored the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, which compounded the financial world’s too-big-to-fail problem by letting traditional commercial lenders like Bank of America and Citigroup buy up riskier, unregulated investment banks like Merrill Lynch. Gramm then pushed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000 through in a midnight budget amendment, a tactic which made sure that “credit default swaps” were not subject to either securities regulations or gambling laws. Just eight years later, credit default swap gambling destroyed insurance giant AIG, to the dismay of taxpayers everywhere.