President Obama signed the Dodd-Frank financial reform law in July 2010, hailing it as an overhaul to prevent the kind of crisis that hit the world economy in 2008 and one of the signature achievements of his first term. Almost three years later, much of the big stuff the law calls for is on hold, under legal and legislative assault, or still working its way through the regulatory intestines. According to a law firm that tracks the legislation, only 38 percent of the 398 Dodd-Frank rules have been imposed, while regulators haven’t yet publicly put forward versions of almost a third of them.
Is this the face of success? A new book, “Act of Congress,” by Robert Kaiser, an associate editor and senior correspondent for The Washington Post, gives that question a qualified yes. “The story of Dodd-Frank does demonstrate that Congress still canwork,” he writes, “and it shows how, but only in extreme circumstances.”
(Knopf) - ‘Act of Congress: How America's Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn't’ by Robert G. Kaiser
To a Beltway expert such as Kaiser, that a dysfunctional and hyperpartisan Congress passed such a sweeping bill constitutes a small miracle. He concludes that “the big banks and Wall Street institutions never gave up trying to shape the bill to serve their interests, but that they had little success.” As former Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank, whose name is on the bill, says: “Money is influential [in Congress], but votes will kick money’s ass any time they come up against each other. . . . Public opinion drove that bill.” At another point, Frank declares, “The big banks got nothing.”
Kaiser’s account reminds you of those fairy tales that end with the wedding and don’t follow up to see how the prince and princess’s married life turns out. “Act of Congress” doesn’t cover what happened after the law’s enactment. In large part because of the ongoing, messy aftermath, many students of finance don’t see Dodd-Frank as much of a triumph at all. In the wake of this generation’s worst global financial and economic crisis, Congress passed the bare minimum of what was necessary. Dodd-Frank did not restructure the financial industry. It did not remake the financial regulatory architecture. Instead, the law tinkered around the edges, increasing regulation for this, expanding the power for that. Congress left much of the toil to financial regulators with limited resources. Troublingly, this has given the banks another opportunity, out of the public eye, to wrest exemptions that emasculate the rules.
Kaiser’s book is roughly divided into two parts. The first covers how the House version of the law, shepherded by Frank, came to be; the second half covers the work of then-Sen. Christopher Dodd (Conn.) in his chamber. The legislation is both men’s capstone achievement, and both left Congress after it was passed.
The author has delivered a blow-by-blow account of the tawdry compromises, Republican intractability and factional fighting within the Democratic Party that went into making the law. Congress comes across as the nation’s grandfather: antiquated, inconsistent, as slow-moving as it is dull-witted. The book is in part an elegy for the Congress — particularly the Senate — of yore, the Senate of Dodd’s father, Thomas J. Dodd.