Nearing its 100-day mark, the Trump administration is embroiled in battles on several fronts: how to replace the Affordable Care Act, overhaul the tax code and fund a wall along the Mexico border.
Now, President Trump and Republican leaders in Congress are opening another potentially explosive door: gutting Obama-era Wall Street regulations.
On Wednesday, the House Financial Services Committee is scheduled to take up legislation that would slash many of the rules put in place by 2010’s Dodd-Frank Act to rein in banks after the financial crisis. Trump has ordered three reviews of banking rules, including two last week. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is scheduled to deliver a report to Trump in June on which industry rules should be rolled back.
For Republicans, the effort could lead to a bit of redemption. Dodd-Frank became law with almost no Republican support, and conservative lawmakers say it has fallen short of Obama administration promises that it would discourage risky behavior by big banks and prevent another taxpayer bailout of failing institutions.
Yet their efforts to undo the law have already hit some speed bumps. With Congress tied up with complex efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, make significant changes to the tax code and pass a budget resolution to avoid a government shutdown, efforts to roll back Dodd-Frank have taken a back seat.
Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), chair of the Financial Services Committee, is pushing forward with legislation to effectively replace the 2010 law, and the bill is expected to come up for a House vote by mid-May. But Senate leaders have not indicated when they would take up the bill if it does pass, and many industry lobbyists say the measure could languish until late in the year or 2018.
Hensarling faces opposition from not only Democrats and consumer groups but also big-bank CEOs. Several industry leaders have said they do not support gutting the law, despite complaining for years about the regulatory burden.
“We have redesigned the way in which large financial institutions in this country function,” and reworking those regulations would add new uncertainty, Morgan Stanley chief executive James Gorman said recently . “I would not start again. That’s a terrifying thought to start again, because what’s going to replace it?”
Hensarling initially introduced the Financial Choice Act in 2016, a time when even supporters said it had little chance of passing while a Democrat held the White House. That changed after Trump’s election. Industry lobbyists descended on Hensarling’s Dallas office as the longtime lawmaker crafted his revisions.
At its core, the proposed legislation offers the country’s nearly 6,000 banks a choice: If they want to avoid many of the regulatory burdens imposed by Dodd-Frank, they must significantly increase their emergency financial cushion. That way, even if they ran into financial trouble, the banks would have enough money to survive without taxpayers’ help, Hensarling has said.
Hensarling’s bill would also weaken the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and repeal the “Volcker rule,” which restricts big banks’ ability to make risky financial bets. And it would subject big banks less often to “stress tests” to prove they could survive economic turmoil.
Lawrence J. White, an economics professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, dubbed such proposals “outrageous.”
“Banks can change their portfolios relatively rapidly, which means they can get into trouble relatively rapidly,” he said. There should be more stress tests, not less, White argued. “The whole point is that these guys are big and systemic,” White said. “If they found themselves in an adverse scenario, the consequences are substantial.”
Another sticking point may be the “Durbin amendment,” which caps the fee banks charge retailers for processing debit-card transactions. Hensarling’s bill would eliminate the provision, setting up a potential battle between the banking and retail industries.
Dozens of members of the major retail industry groups, the Retail Industry Leaders Association and National Retail Federation, plan Wednesday to descend on Capitol Hill to talk to lawmakers about the issue while the Financial Services Committee holds a hearing on Hensarling’s bill. The industry is betting lawmakers will recoil at the prospect of the repeat of the bloody battle that took place in the Senate when the Dodd-Frank provision was originally debated years ago.
“The goal is to stop it in House,” said Austen Jensen, vice president for government affairs for the Retail Industry Leaders Association. “We want to be able to avoid that vote.”
It is unclear how wedded Hensarling is to repealing the provision, which the banking industry has complained has cost the industry — and its customers — billions. “I believe repeal of the Durbin Amendment belongs in the Financial CHOICE Act, but I recognize many Members of Congress are studying this issue and are listening to both sides,” Hensarling said in a statement.