In the Senate, Republicans unanimously supported the measure, the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act (S. 2155); 16 Senate Democrats and Angus King (I-Maine) crossed the aisle to support the GOP push to deregulate. A related bill passed the House almost entirely along party lines, with no Democrats supporting the measure and only one Republican opposing it, and the House is expected to pass the Senate bill along similar lines on Tuesday.
Why is Congress unraveling crisis-era reforms so soon? Although the crisis ended less than a decade ago, rolling back tough rules after a crisis is par for the course, here and abroad.
Financial crises follow recurring patterns
International financial crises occur on approximately 10- to 15-year cycles, as tight regulations put in place in the aftermath of crisis are typically rolled back or eroded by financial innovations.
For a brief time after a crisis, public attention and concern about preventing the next crisis creates a push for increased regulation. But as the crisis fades into memory, so does public fear. Advocates for deregulation make their arguments again, their cause aided by the public’s lack of interest and confusion about complex regulatory rules. This can lead to an under-regulated financial system, resulting in a new crisis and a new public push for greater regulation.
Policy complexity helps drive cycles of reform and repeal
Financial regulation only captures the public’s attention in times of crisis. As political scientist Pepper Culpepper argues, some important policy areas often escape public scrutiny because they are so complex. Well-functioning financial markets are obviously of great importance to the economy. But debates over financial policy are often highly technical; how they affect people’s lives can be hard to see.
As a result, the public usually pays less attention to debates about the banking system and financial regulatory policy than do bankers and other financial actors with the technical knowledge to understand them. This matters because bankers typically prefer less regulation — and riskier banking systems — than the public. But without much public pressure from the other side, politicians have little reason to keep regulations strict.
That changes when a financial crisis hits, shining a spotlight on bank rules and bailouts
For instance, in the first years after the 2008 financial crisis, public anger over Wall Street bailouts gave birth to both the tea party on the right and the Occupy movement on the left. Elizabeth Warren, now a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, became a national political figure because of this debate, chairing first the congressional panel overseeing government bailout funds and then the newly created Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, which she had proposed.
A cratered economy in late 2008 helped to propel Barack Obama into the presidency and gave Democrats control of Congress. With tremendous public attention focused on the need to change the financial system, Democrats passed the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, the largest increase of government oversight of banks and other financial institutions since the Great Depression.
But now, eight years later, financial markets appear to be stabilized. Activists on both the left and right have moved on to other issues. And deregulation proponents have reemerged to push their cause.
Deregulation has limited bipartisan appeal
Politicians’ ideologies rarely change, even after events that might challenge them, as political scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal outline in their research on “political bubbles.” Democrats almost uniformly voted for stronger banking industry regulation during the crisis. But with an improving economy, pro-deregulation Republicans, including Sens. Mike Crapo (Idaho) and Bob Corker (Tenn.), and Democrats, including Sens. Chris Coons and Tom Carper, both representing Delaware, reemerge.
Republicans generally favor deregulation, and so have an easy time supporting a rollback of financial regulations. A revived economy allows Republicans to push to dismantle Dodd-Frank — especially appealing, as it means they’re rolling back one of Obama’s signature achievements.
But for Democrats, deregulation is a bit more complicated, as you can see in the split vote. Some Democrats, led by Warren, remain dedicated to strictly regulating the banking industry. They think that passing the current measure would start the country on a path to another financial crisis.
Other Democrats argue that the bill relaxes over-corrections, imposed hastily and in a time of crisis, that hurt smaller banks and the communities they serve. These Democrats, including Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), want to loosen regulatory burdens on community banks because these institutions are the most likely to offer financial services to their rural communities. Others, including Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.), argue that scaling back these rules will help give their low- and middle-income constituents greater access to credit.
This bill doesn’t change much; both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations signed into law far more significant and wide-reaching deregulatory efforts. But unless (or until) there’s another crisis that grabs public attention, this round of deregulation will almost certainly not be the last.
Christopher Mitchell is an assistant professor of politics and international relations at Mount Holyoke College. He is the author of “Saving the Market from Itself: The Politics of Financial Intervention” (Cambridge University Press, 2016).