WASHINGTON — The regulatory reform debate once again devolved into partisan gridlock on Thursday as Republicans and Democrats clashed in public over how much power to give to a new consumer protection bureau and in private over how much time should be allotted to debate the legislation.
Though it was clear from the start that a Republican alternative on the consumer bureau was going to fail (it eventually was defeated 61 to 38), GOP lawmakers dragged out the debate rather than allowing the measure to be voted on and moving on to some of the roughly 140 other amendments still to be considered.
Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, D-Conn., was clearly frustrated with the delay, complaining that if the Senate is allowed to consider only two or three amendments a day, reform would never pass.
"We've got 140 amendments with members who want to be heard," he said. "If everyone demands more time, everyone here suffers. There's not an unlimited debate on this bill. … We know these issues pretty well. It's not as if this is a new bill."
An aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the delays were part of the Republicans' strategy. "They are dragging it out," the aide said.
A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said lawmakers should take their time.
"Sen. McConnell said he didn't think this should be done in less than two weeks," the spokesman said.
Since regulatory reform was first proposed by the Obama administration nearly a year ago, the consumer bureau has been one of its most controversial elements.
Under the Dodd bill, a new independent bureau would be placed within the Federal Reserve Board to write and enforce consumer protection rules for financial institutions and certain nonbanks. (The bill would allow community banks to retain primary enforcement from their prudential regulator, but they would face backup authority from the new bureau.)
But Republicans counter that the bureau's powers are too broad, and that it would be able to target nonfinancial professionals such as dentists and optometrists.
"What's in the Dodd bill is very much what the White House wants to see happen on consumer protection, and it's out of bounds," said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. "The Democrats' bill will create a massive new bureaucracy. It can do whatever it wants, whenever it wants. … Their new bureau under their bill is a huge, huge government overreach."
Shelby called his substitute a "constructive alternative" that "will enhance consumer protection without … stifling small-business development."
His amendment would house a consumer bureau in the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and subject its rulemaking to consent of the agency's board. The bureau would not have enforcement capability, but would rely on prudential regulators and the Federal Trade Commission to enforce its rules.
In the same amendment, Shelby proposed to keep the status quo for national bank preemption. Under the Dodd bill, the states would have the power to enforce their own rules and federal ones against national banks.
The Shelby amendment would apply to all banks and mortgage originators and nonbanks that have a "pattern and practice of violating consumer laws."
Democrats said that Republicans wanted to go backward and weaken consumer protection.
"It takes a huge step back," Dodd said.
But Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said a full-scale overhaul of Dodd's bill was not necessary. Instead, Corker said, six or seven "surgical" changes to the consumer protection provisions would allay most GOP concerns. "There are ways to deal with things like preemption," he said. "There are ways of dealing with state attorneys general. … I think that what Sen. Shelby and Sen. McConnell are doing is saying, 'Look, left to our own accord, OK, this is a way of dealing with consumer protection,' but hopefully, if this does not pass, then there will be some surgical ways of dealing with it."
Also Thursday, Dodd reached a breakthrough on a controversial amendment from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., that would let the Government Accountability Office audit the Fed.
A House version of the amendment included in its reform bill passed last year would allow the GAO to review all activities at the Fed, including monetary policy, and was fiercely opposed by the central bank and the Obama administration.
While Sanders originally intended to offer a similar measure, Dodd helped persuade him to instead revise it to be more narrow in scope, restricting the GAO's review to lending by the Fed during the financial crisis and explicitly exempting monetary policy activity.
The amendment would focus on the Fed's activities since Dec. 1, 2007, but not cover monetary policy activity, Dodd said.
"There was a concern about whether or not the independence of the Fed in any way would be compromised and he has guaranteed with this language here that that is no longer an issue whatsoever," Dodd said.
The revised amendment was expected to pass.
Sens. Sherrod Brown and Ted Kaufman, meanwhile, continued to stump for their amendment to limit the size of banks, responding to critics who said it was going too far. Under their amendment, no bank holding company could hold more than 10% of the nation's insured deposits, and a bank's nondeposit liabilities could not exceed 2% of the nation's gross domestic product. That cap would be 3% for financial institutions that do not own a bank. These limits would force the largest institutions to shrink in size to roughly where they were a decade ago.
"This is not a draconian bill," Kaufman said in a conference call with reporters. "Under this bill, Citigroup would be the same size as they were in 2002."
Brown said his amendment would merely extend current law, which already limits banks from growing above the 10% ceiling via acquisition.
The Senate passed one amendment earlier in the day, approving in a 98-to-0 vote a measure championed by community bankers that would base deposit insurance premiums on assets instead of deposits. The measure, sponsored by Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, is meant to tie deposit insurance to risk rather than deposits and would mean higher premiums for large banks that rely less on deposits for core funding.