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What a GOP win could mean for the financial overhaul

By Brady Dennis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 29, 2010; 10:53 AM

Republicans made little secret of how much they loathed the far-reaching financial overhaul bill that squeaked through Congress this past summer.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, said the bill "promises more government, more costs, slower economic growth and fewer jobs. It threatens privacy rights and fails to address crucial elements of the recent crisis."

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), an especially eloquent critic, proclaimed that it "will crush job creation at a time when our nation needs to be creating jobs. We have a bill that assaults the fundamental economic liberties of every American citizen."

The landmark Dodd-Frank legislation - named for Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) - gives the government broad new authority to seize and wind down large, troubled financial firms. It creates an independent consumer bureau to protect borrowers against abuses in mortgage, credit-card and other loans. It includes a version of the "Volcker Rule," aimed at limiting proprietary trading by banks. It sets up a council of federal regulators to monitor threats to the financial system, mandates oversight of the vast financial derivatives market and gives shareholders more say on how corporate executives are paid, among other things.

Many Republicans view the law as a monumental government overreach and would like nothing more than to curtail major portions of it, if not repeal them altogether, should they win big in Tuesday's midterm elections.

But the chances of that actually happening, even if the GOP gains control of both houses of Congress: slim.

"I don't think it's all that likely," said Karen Shaw Petrou, managing partner of the research firm Federal Financial Analytics, adding that prospects for such legislation "are at best iffy."

For starters, Democrats had a devilish time corralling enough votes to pass the massive bill, despite significant majorities in the House and Senate. Even if Republicans gain power, they would have a much narrower majority. Democrats almost certainly would block any meaningful efforts to rein in Dodd-Frank provisions, while portraying GOP members as minions of Wall Street. In the unlikely event that Republicans force significant changes through Congress, they would then face the threat of a presidential veto.

It also remains unclear precisely what changes the GOP would pursue. It's one thing to criticize existing legislation, quite another to offer plausible alternatives.

"If you repeal it, you have to replace it," Petrou said, "because, with very few exceptions, doing nothing is not appropriate in the wake of the financial crisis."

That doesn't mean Republicans don't have some tools at their disposal. They could refuse to confirm President Obama's choices for key posts created by the bill, such as the head of the new consumer protection bureau. Or they could try to crimp some of the law's mandates by using the congressional appropriations process.

But rather than spinning their wheels trying to walk back every Dodd-Frank provision they dislike, Republicans are more likely to focus on overhauling government-backed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The GOP repeatedly has hammered Democrats for not dealing with the troubled entities as part of the financial overhaul, even as Republicans themselves have proposed little in the way of long-term alternatives.

"Congress could have also used this legislative opportunity to begin the process of reforming the failed mortgage giants Fannie and Freddie, whose ever-growing bailouts have no upper limit," Shelby said just before the Dodd-Frank bill passed. "Yet at every turn, the Democratic majority blocked Republican efforts to establish at least a foundation for reform."

What Democrats actually did was delay those tough decisions for another day. The Obama administration and members of both parties have vowed in 2011 to tackle the complex task of overhauling Fannie and Freddie, which so far has cost taxpayers nearly $150 billion.

Should Republicans win control of Congress, they likely will have an upper hand in that critical debate. But whatever the outcome, it won't happen without another legislative wrestling match.

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