If you don't know what the Dodd-Frank Act is, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told an audience last weekend, "it's Obamacare for banks." Ryan, outgoing chairman of the House Budget Committee, was echoing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who's been using that expression since at least April (and he used it again Wednesday night). Expect to hear the expression more, particularly once a new, probably-Republican-led Senate takes over on Capitol Hill in January.
Dodd-Frank, a set of financial regulations passed in the wake of the financial crisis, has been cited by financial reporters, liberal publications, and (most importantly) Republican senators as a likely target for overhaul if the Senate changes hands. In particular, Dodd-Frank's "Volcker Rule," which limits speculative trading by banks, has been a Republican punching bag since its passage in 2010.
The origin of the newly in-vogue phrase appears to be a April 2012 Weekly Standard piece by Peter Wallison. "The best way to understand the Dodd-Frank Act," Wallison wrote, "is to think of it as Obamacare for the financial industry. Like its health care counterpart, it leaves the members of the massive financial services industry as privately-owned firms, but blankets them with so much regulation that they are no longer really independent operators."
That argument lay fallow for a while, but reemerged last December shortly after the apex of critique of the healthcare law to which Dodd-Frank was being compared. The Competitive Enterprise Institute pointed to that Wallison piece with the pithier "Obamacare for banks" formulation -- and a more pointed articulation of the comparison: "Like Obamacare, Dodd-Frank was a 2,500-plus page law rammed through the Democrat-controlled Congress in 2010. And like the bureaucrat-written rules implementing Obamacare, the regulations implementing the law are pretty lengthy as well." A few weeks later, the Washington Times excerpted the CEI article, which is probably the point at which it took off in conservative circles.
McConnell has used the phrase repeatedly. "Obamacare for banks," he said at the Lincoln Day Banquet in Corbin, Kentucky six months ago. "Obamacare for banks," he said to the Chamber of Commerce of Richmond, Kentucky in July. Dodd-Frank is "Obamacare for banks," he said at the Red, White and Blue Picnic in Owensboro in August, and it means "an army of regulators crawling all over America with the view that if you're making a profit you must be up to no good."
That's the neat thing about the phrase "Obamacare for banks." Even as talk of repealing Obamacare has waned on the campaign trail and the phrase itself continues to be dissociated from the popularity of its elements, the expression maintains its rhetorical force. To critics, "Obamacare" encapsulates big governance, bad policy-making, and top-down thinking. Couple that with banks -- among the less-loved American institutions -- and you have a rhetorical and political winner.
It remains to be seen if the Senate will be turned over to Mitch McConnell in 2015 (though it seems very likely), and it remains to be seen if his party will push for full or partial repeal of Dodd-Frank. But if this tagline continues to spread, we probably have our answer.
This post has been corrected to identify McConnell as the Minority, not Majority, Leader.