By David Cho and Zachary A. Goldfarb
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 18, 2009
The plan President Obama unveiled yesterday to overhaul the government's oversight of the financial system was not the wholesale remaking of Washington that the administration had initially envisioned.
As the proposal came under intense pressure this spring, its chief architects held firm to a few reforms they deemed the most fundamental to averting another financial crisis while giving ground on nearly everything else.
Time and again, lawmakers, regulators and industry lobbyists pressed their concerns behind closed doors at the White House and the Treasury Department, according to participants.
Turf-conscious regulators opposed the idea to consolidate banking oversight agencies and took their appeal over the Treasury directly to the White House. Ultimately the administration spared all but one agency.
A few key lawmakers argued against merging the two federal agencies that oversee the stock and commodity markets. That did not happen.
Insurance companies fought over whether a national regulator should oversee them. The White House dropped the proposal.
But on those elements that mattered most to the administration, particularly expanding the powers of the Federal Reserve, Obama's senior advisers were unyielding.
On May 8, lobbyists representing many of the nation's banks and hedge funds huddled with senior White House advisers in the Roosevelt Room, seeking to snuff out an administration plan to increase the Fed's authority to regulate them, when Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner stuck his head in the door.
Fresh from meeting with Obama, Geithner asked the lobbyists what they were up to. When they explained they preferred that a council of regulators, rather than the central bank, safeguard the financial markets, Geithner silenced the discussion with a string of obscenities, according to people who were present.
"I don't believe in rule by committee," he said.
Now as the plan moves to Capitol Hill, skeptics say it gives the Fed too much power. Others say it did not go far enough to eliminate overlapping agencies. Some big financial firms complain that they were cut out of the process.
Geithner and National Economic Council director Lawrence H. Summers, who forged the plan, did not seek a consensus among all of these interest groups. Instead, Summers said, they focused on how to fix the regulatory system's root problems. Whether the solution called for the merger or elimination of agencies was a secondary concern.
"We made a decision to focus on doing what is necessary to prevent future crises," Summers said in an interview. "The test of whether this is going to be bold and far-reaching is going to be what happens in practice in the financial industry not what happens to organizational charts in Washington."
Meetings on regulatory reform began a few weeks after the November election. At first, Summers and Geithner insisted that their team fully understand what factors had provoked the crisis rather than address practical matters, such as which agencies would be eliminated and which would gain power, according to participants in the sessions.
But it was clear to several of them that Geithner and Summers had long ago concluded the Fed should take on a new, more powerful role that would allow it to probe any firm or market that could threaten the financial system.
The group examined other possibilities, including creating a new agency to exercise the power, giving it to an existing regulator or assigning the task to a council of regulators. But every idea, upon scrutiny, was judged to have major flaws.
The separate issue of protecting consumers of mortgages and other financial products emerged as a second priority at a meeting with Obama shortly after his inauguration. Treasury officials gave a presentation about the growing complexity of the lending business. Obama referred to his own personal experience of trying to understand the rules governing credit cards. He urged the group to take strong action on consumer regulation, sources said.
As the weeks progressed, the group convened nearly every day, often meeting in Summers's office on the second floor of the White House, where they raided his personal stash of Diet Cokes, or in the Roosevelt Room.
By the end of February, a first draft of the plan emerged. It included several radical proposals. The oversight authority of the nation's four federal banking regulators would be merged into one agency. The Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission would be combined.
Neither proposal would survive.
The proposal to create a unified banking regulator faced resistance from big and small banks, which are overseen by a patchwork of federal and state agencies. Banks have been able to choose their own regulator, often allowing them to seek the friendliest oversight. Establishing a single regulator would threaten this arrangement.
In February, Camden R. Fine, chief executive of Independent Community Bankers of America, sat down in Geithner's office days after he was sworn in, according to a person familiar with the meeting. Fine warned Geithner against the idea of a single regulator, telling him that such a proposal would anger the 8,000 community banks ICBA represents. Fine cautioned him that "we would be totally opposed to that," the source recalled.
Geithner didn't respond. He listened and took notes.
Such meetings with industry representatives were common, but senior administration officials said they did not allow themselves to be unduly swayed by such concerns.
More influential were the voices of banking regulators, as well as the heads of financial committees in Congress, some administration officials said.
Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Sheila C. Bair said she spoke to the Treasury and then to the White House about preserving her agency's role as a regulator of state-chartered banks, arguing that the existing system of state charters was important for supporting community banks and that it had not contributed to the financial crisis.
Obama's advisers said they chose to pick their spots and put their political weight behind only those issues considered vital to the plan. These officials, for instance, said they were willing to scrap the idea of a single banking regulator as long as they could achieve the same objective by crafting rules to impose uniform oversight over all banks.
"We were leaning to the merger. Then we think: What kind of reaction are you going to get on the Hill? What's the political blowback? And given the political blowback, is it essential to do it?" an administration official said. "The substance underneath matters a heck of a lot more."
Problems in the insurance industry were deemed by officials to be peripheral to the financial crisis. So while a federal regulator for insurance companies was suggested in the administration's first weeks, this proposal was shelved after it confronted opposition from state governments, which now regulate the industry, and widely diverging views from insurers.
At a June 4 meeting with insurance company representatives, White House and Treasury officials opened by asking what kind of regulator they wanted, according to people present. The American Council of Life Insurance said it wanted a federal regulator. The chief executive of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners jumped in to say state regulators work best. Lobbyists for property and casualty insurance companies argued against federal regulation.
The arguments went round and round, with different people shouting one another down. Finally, an administration official ended the gathering, telling participants: "Now you'll understand why we can't make everyone happy."
Staff writers Binyamin Appelbaum and Brady Dennis contributed to this report.