The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A lot of people heard what Barney Frank said about the new banking law. Few knew he works for a bank.

Former congressman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) says his role on Signature Bank's board of directors has not influenced his positions on banking oversight. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

As Senate Democrats successfully pushed into law a plan that rolls back post-financial-crisis banking rules, Barney Frank was a go-to figure.

Frank, a former House Democrat from Massachusetts and author the 2010 “Dodd-Frank” banking rules that the new law scales back, said the plan left his rules largely in place. And though he said he would vote against the measure, Frank said it would not help the biggest Wall Street banks and denied it would increase the risks of another financial crisis.

Some Democrats leaned heavily on those words as they pushed back against the plan's liberal critics.

“I think it’s really important that we debate the actual merits of this bill and not the boogeyman merits: the statements that this bill will somehow lead to the catastrophic downfall of our financial system,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) said in a speech on the Senate floor. “Even Barney Frank disagrees with that evaluation of this bill.”

But the proponents of the law rarely, if ever, mentioned that Frank is not just the author of the 2010 law, but also sits on the board of New York-based Signature Bank, a financial firm in position to benefit from the new legislation.

“When citing Barney Frank as the historic creator of Dodd-Frank, it’s important to flag he may have different motivations now as the public gauges whether these rollbacks are good for them or good for Wall Street,” said Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at Public Citizen, a government ethics watchdog.

The rollback passed the Senate in March and the House earlier this week, and President Trump signed it into law Thursday.

Congress approves plan to roll back post-financial-crisis rules for banks

Dodd-Frank imposed additional regulatory safeguards on banks with more than $50 billion in assets, but the rollback that passed this week, among other things, raises that threshold to $250 billion. Signature Bank has more than $40 billion in assets and can now grow significantly without automatically facing additional regulation. Frank has served on Signature's board for three years and has received more than $1 million in payments from the bank during that time.

In an interview, Frank acknowledged that Signature stood to benefit, but he said his role on the bank's board did not influence his thinking.

Frank said his position on the threshold predates his compensation from the financial sector. At a House Financial Services Committee hearing in 2014, one year before joining Signature, Frank said “we should look at” revising the $50 billion threshold. Frank says he also voiced support for raising the threshold in 2013. Frank has said he supports raising the threshold to $125 billion, rather than the $250 billion in the legislation.

“My being on the board has not changed my position on this at all,” Frank said. “These efforts began well before I began at Signature Bank.”

Frank is one of the “non-employee” members on Signature’s board of directors. In this role, Frank said, he has mostly worked with a community group upset over some of Signature’s lending practices.

Signature did not respond to a request to comment.

The regulatory rollback is overwhelmingly supported by Republicans, but it could not have cleared the Senate without the support of 17 Democrats. Members of that coalition continually cited Frank's stance to make their case.

“Barney Frank was quoted as saying that for the most part it leaves Dodd-Frank alone,” Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) told the Intercept, saying the former lawmaker's comments helped persuade him to support the plan.

As well as citing Frank on the Senate floor, Heitkamp quoted his support for a key provision of the bill in a news release, touted his position on her Twitter page and published to her Medium page a column penned by Frank and his Dodd-Frank co-author, former Connecticut Democratic senator Chris Dodd.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), another proponent of the banking overhaul, criticized those arguing the bill would help the Wall Street banks, citing Frank’s and Dodd’s contention that keeps the protections for the biggest Wall Street banks in place. "Those are the original authors,” Tester said. “That's why it's called Dodd-Frank.”

Senate Democrats contacted for this story declined to comment.

Frank said he would have opposed the legislation primarily because it weakened reporting requirements on home mortgages, which critics fear will lead to more racial discrimination in lending. But he also defended the deregulation plan as it worked its way through Congress, including on Tuesday when, around the time the House was voting to pass the bill, he argued on CNBC that the legislation does not allow the big banks to make riskier bets.

“It does not in any way weaken the regulations we put in there for the largest banks or that were there to prevent the kind of crisis we had 10 years ago,” Frank said.

He also spoke to numerous media outlets, often downplaying the charge that it would increase the risk to the global financial system.

“By virtue of having his name attached to the bill, Frank’s opinions on this have carried a lot of weight. But there’s woefully insufficient understanding about this extraordinary conflict of interest that could be influencing his public statements on the matter,” said David Segal of Demand Progress, a left-leaning progressive advocacy group.

Frank said he had been transparent about his position on Signature Bank during the debate over the rules. He cited an op-ed in CNBC that disclosed his role and comments he made at a Columbia University seminar in the fall in which he acknowledged his role on the board of a bank.

The new law marks the most significant change to the post-financial-crisis banking rules since they were passed eight years ago.

Under Dodd-Frank, federal regulators had to automatically enforce additional checks on banks once they grew beyond $50 billion in assets. The new law increases that threshold so it automatically applies only to banks with more than $250 billion in assets. Signature’s CEO recently criticized the threshold in an interview with the Financial Times.

Critics say raising the threshold will encourage dangerous bets that could leave taxpayers on the hook. The 25 banks with between $50 billion and $250 billion in assets account for one-sixth of the banking sector, and they received $47 billion in government bailouts after the 2008 financial crisis, according to Gregg Gelzinis, a banking expert at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.

The law eases the burdens these banks face on submitting plans for winding down if they fail (plans known as “living wills”); looser liquidity rules, which mandate that banks have easy access to assets that can quickly be converted to cash to pay their obligations if needed; and less frequent “stress tests,” which gauge how prepared a bank is for a financial crisis.

“This legislation reduces the resilience of that critical segment of the banking sector,” Gelzinis said. “It makes it more likely one or many of these banks fail the next time we have severe stress in the financial system, making it more likely they’ll trigger or exacerbate the next financial crisis.”

Defenders of the law say it will free small banks from needlessly cumbersome regulations, allowing them to make loans that spark broader economic growth. They also argue that rules for big banks will be almost entirely unaffected, arguing the new plan keeps the economy safe from another financial crisis.

“This is a great day for Main Street in rural America, and a big testament to what’s possible when members of Congress put partisanship aside and work together to help our communities grow and thrive,” Heitkamp said in a statement released after Trump signed the legislation.

Some critics of the new banking law have defended Frank. Sheila Bair, who served as chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and has criticized a provision of the legislation that she says would weaken capital standards for certain banks, said Frank was not influenced by serving on Signature’s board.

“It looks bad, but knowing him, I think he would have had that position whether he was on that board or not,” Bair said. “Barney, for all his liberal reputation, has always been pretty bank-friendly, especially for the smaller banks.”