Dodd on Trail, Committee on Hold

By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Christopher J. Dodd, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, spent yesterday afternoon in Iowa running for president.

His counterpart in the House, Barney Frank of the Financial Services Committee, spent yesterday running a meeting on bills to help those hurt by the subprime mortgage crisis.

So it goes as Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat who is drawing about 1 percent support in major polls, follows the campaign trail while some of the most critical issues on his Senate panel's agenda remain stuck in neutral.

Since January, the House committee led by Frank (D-Mass.) has held 81 hearings into such issues as predatory loans, threats to the financial markets and skyrocketing pay deals for corporate executives.

By contrast, the Senate Banking Committee under Dodd's leadership has held 32 hearings during the same period. It has approved important measures on flood insurance, student loans and foreign ownership of U.S. companies.

But on what is widely seen as the most vital issue of the day -- turmoil in the housing market that threatens the economy -- Dodd has held hearings but has not advanced major legislation. Dodd says he is meeting with consumers and industry groups and hopes to introduce a subprime bill soon.

The House Financial Services panel is well along that path. With bipartisan support, the committee passed legislation yesterday that would prohibit lending practices that hamstring home buyers. Frank said at yesterday's hearing that a vote by the full House could come next week.

In all, the House this year has passed scores of bills involving the financial services industry and forwarded them to the Senate, where as many as three dozen await action.

Dodd faces a built-in disadvantage: House leaders such as Frank enjoy more latitude because of wider Democratic majorities in that chamber. Dodd's committee, and the Senate as a whole, are more evenly divided and thus must concentrate on building consensus before proposing and enacting legislation. In a statement, Dodd said his committee has passed 17 bills this year, which he says compares favorably to the output of the banking panel under its previous chairman, Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) .

"Chairing the Senate Banking Committee isn't just about the number of bills passed," said Marvin Fast, a spokesman for Dodd. "It relates to exercising strong, decisive and clear oversight on a broad range of issues. . . . He has consistently fought to protect investors and keep our financial markets running in an efficient and secure manner."

Still, news last month that Dodd had moved his wife and daughters to Des Moines -- and a schedule that has him traveling across Iowa for most of November -- is rankling people with business before his committee.

Lawmakers, lobbyists and consumer advocates awaiting attention cited the fear of reprisal in declining to speak publicly about the torpid pace of Dodd's panel's work. But murmurs of dissatisfaction from high-level quarters including the Treasury Department have grown louder as the campaign season intensifies.

Last month, Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) referred wryly to Dodd's absence from three banking committee hearings and noted that other lawmakers took the gavel in Dodd's absence. "I am wondering when it will be my turn," Bunning said, according to two people who attended the hearing.

Dodd has missed about one-third of the Senate's votes this term, fewer than only three colleagues: fellow presidential aspirants Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) who suffered a brain hemorrhage last year.

Beyond legislation, Dodd has shepherded a dozen nominees to federal agencies through the confirmation process. Aides say a significant portion of his work has occurred behind closed doors, including talks over who Democrats might propose to fill two slots at the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Staff writer Neil Irwin contributed to this report.

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