'Always for Less Regulation'?

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Friday, September 19, 2008

TO LISTEN to Sen. Barack Obama, Sen. John McCain is a Johnny-come-lately to the cause of regulating financial markets. "He has consistently opposed the sorts of common-sense regulations that might have lessened the current crisis," Mr. Obama said in New Mexico yesterday. "When I was warning about the danger ahead on Wall Street months ago because of the lack of oversight, Senator McCain was telling the Wall Street Journal -- and I quote -- 'I'm always for less regulation.' "

But the full quotation from Mr. McCain's March interview with the Journal's editorial board belies Mr. Obama's one-sided rendition. The Republican candidate went on to say, "But I am aware of the view that there is a need for government oversight. I think we found this in the subprime lending crisis -- that there are people that game the system and if not outright broke the law, they certainly engaged in unethical conduct which made this problem worse. So I do believe that there is role for oversight."

It's fair to say that Mr. McCain has dramatically ramped up the regulatory rhetoric in the wake of the meltdown on Wall Street. Mr. Obama made the argument about the need for increased oversight much earlier. And Mr. McCain has generally taken an anti-regulatory stance, although not in all cases -- his support for federal regulation of tobacco and boxing being prominent counter-examples. Mr. McCain backed a moratorium on all new federal regulation in 1995, saying that excessive regulations were "destroying the American family, the American dream." On the campaign trail in 2000, he touted his record of voting "for smaller government, for less regulation."

However, when it comes to regulating financial institutions and corporate misconduct, Mr. McCain's record is more in keeping with his current rhetoric. In the aftermath of the Enron collapse and other accounting scandals, he was a leader, with Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), in pushing to require that companies treat stock options granted to employees as expenses on their balance sheets. "I have long opposed unnecessary regulation of business activity, mindful that the heavy hand of government can discourage innovation," he wrote in a July 2002 op-ed in the New York Times. "But in the current climate only a restoration of the system of checks and balances that once protected the American investor -- and that has seriously deteriorated over the past 10 years -- can restore the confidence that makes financial markets work."

Mr. McCain was an early voice calling for the resignation of Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Harvey Pitt, charging that he "seems to prefer industry self-policing to necessary lawmaking. Government's demands for corporate accountability are only credible if government executives are held accountable as well."

In 2006, he pushed for stronger regulation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- while Mr. Obama was notably silent. "If Congress does not act, American taxpayers will continue to be exposed to the enormous risk that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac pose to the housing market, the overall financial system, and the economy as a whole," Mr. McCain warned at the time.

One element of the Obama campaign's brief against Mr. McCain is that he supported repeal of the law separating commercial banks from investment banks. "He's spent decades in Washington supporting financial institutions instead of their customers," Mr. Obama said yesterday. "Phil Gramm, one of the architects of the deregulation in Washington that led directly to this mess on Wall Street, is also the architect of John McCain's economic plan." Would it be churlish to point out that another author of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley law is former congressman Jim Leach, a founder of Republicans for Obama? Or that Obama advisers Lawrence H. Summers and Robert E. Rubin supported the repeal -- which was signed by President Bill Clinton?

It's a reasonable question which candidate has been more attentive to the brewing problems on Wall Street and which has a better prescription for them. But Mr. Obama's attack does not give a fair reading of the McCain record.


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