At first glance, it's an odd decision: The Financial Services Roundtable, one of Wall Street's most prominent lobbying groups in Washington, has chosen former GOP governor Tim Pawlenty as its new chief at a time when President Obama's chances of reelection seem to be rising, and Democrats are gaining an edge in key Senate races.
The downsides seem clearer than the upsides. If Romney wins, then Pawlenty, a close Romney friend who co-chaired the Republican candidate's presidential campaign and was seriously considered for the veep slot, will have all the access he could want. But if Obama is reelected, Pawlenty isn't likely to be the most appealing messenger to the Democrats' administration.
But to put it in market lingo, the Financial Service Roundtable, observers say, is pricing that in. The past four years have made it clear that Democrats aren't likely to sympathize with the Financial Services Roundtable, regardless of what happens on Election Day. But Congressional Republicans might.
By bringing on Pawlenty, who's stepping down as co-chair of the Romney campaign, the Roundtable is fortifying its relationship with the current Republican establishment and making it clear that its priority moving forward will be on legislative action in Congress, according to Hill aides and outside analysts. There's little expectation that Dodd-Frank will be completely repealed, even if Mitt Romney were elected. Instead, the hope is that Congressional Republicans will be able to push through more incremental reforms to alter and roll-back parts of the Wall Street reform law. "We're trying to reform the reform," the Roundtable's retiring head, Steve Barlett, told The New York Times in 2011.
"The industry has depended heavily upon the Republican establishment to go to bat for them and try to slow down and water down all the reforms" in Dodd-Frank, says one senior Democratic aide. The expectation is that Pawlenty would help increase its influence over Congressional Republicans who are already sympathetic to the interests of the Roundtable, which represents many of the nation's biggest banks and insurance companies, including JPMorgan and Allstate.
Even if Democrats hang on to both the White House and the Senate, Republicans aren't likely to lose all their clout. "While doubtful either chamber changes hands, there's probably a smaller majority in the Senate for Dems post-election day. T-Paw might therefore be an effective advocate for the big banks in Congress, no matter who wins the White House," says Mark Spindel, chief investment officer of the Potomac River Fund, a D.C.-based hedge fund.
While Barlett, the retiring head of the Roundtable, is also a former GOP politician, he left Congress back in 1991. But Pawlenty — the former presidential candidate and Romney veep shortlister — is currently "someone at the center" of top Republican circles, the Democratic aide notes.
Pawlenty could also be in a good position to lobby Republican commissioners on the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission, which are both independent of the administration and are critical to putting the major piece of Dodd-Frank into effect. The Roundtable has already been lobbying the agencies strongly to alter the Volcker Rule, new derivatives regulations, and other major pieces of Wall Street reform.
Finally, Pawlenty gives the group "someone who can go on Bloomberg, Fox Business News, who's quotable in the Wall Street Journal," the Democratic aide says. While the most intense lobbying work is behind the scenes, Pawlenty will also provide a more recognizable public face to the effort to roll back Dodd-Frank. Given that voters don't tend to think all that highly of the banks, associating the banks' position with a politician that, at least, some of them like is a step up.