Wall Street did not engage in reckless financial behavior — which plunged 64 million people worldwide into extreme poverty — in a vacuum.
In order to engage in these practices that brought the world’s economy to its knees, Wall Street had to make sure that the federal government based in Washington, DC would both de-regulate the financial industry (and provide lax oversight) and that Congress and the Federal Reserve would bail out banks with few strings attached if they were in danger of failing.
The way the financial industry and big banks won this kid glove treatment from the federal government is by occupying Washington — flooding it with campaign contributions, lobbyists, and its own staffers and executives to occupy key positions of power. ThinkProgress has assembled a rundown of three ways Wall Street has occupied Washington:
1. Wall Street Occupies Washington With Massive Campaign Contributions: On Nov. 12, 1999 President Bill Clinton signed into law the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, a Depression-era law that created a firewall between commercial and investment banking. Repealing this law was one of the top legislative goals of the financial industry. In the 1998 election cycle, commercial banks spent $18 million on congressional campaign contributions, with 65 percent going to Republicans and 35 percent going to Democrats. Securities and investment firms donated over $40 million. The mega-bank Citibank spent $1,954,191 during that cycle, and it was soon able to merge with Travelers Group as a result of the repeal of banking regulations. Between 2008 and 2010, when new financial regulations were being written following the financial crisis, the finance, insurance, and real estate industries spent $317 million in federal campaign contributions, with $73 million of that coming from Political Action Committees (PACs). The hold of campaign contributions is starkly bipartisan. As Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) explained to Real Clear Politics in an interview last year, he couldn’t get a vote on a windfall profits tax on bonuses at bailed out banks due to campaign contributors. “I couldn’t even get a vote,” Webb explained. “And it wasn’t because of the Republicans. I mean they obviously weren’t going to vote for it. But I got so much froth from Democrats saying that any vote like that was going to screw up fundraising.”
2. Wall Street Occupies Washington With Its Lobbyists: One way to control what Washington lawmakers do is to give them access to exclusive funding streams that allow them to finance their campaigns. But yet another is to control the stream of information. From the deregulatory period of 1998 to 2009, the financial sector spent $3.3 billion on lobbyists. In 2007, the financial industry employed 2,996 separate lobbyists, five for every member of Congress. During the debate over financial reform last year, the industry flooded the nation’s capital with its own lobbyists. On just one issue — regulating derivatives — financial industry lobbyists outnumbered consumer group lobbyists and other pro-reform advocates by 11 to 1. In fact, by 2010, the industry had hired a whopping 1,600 former federal employees as lobbyists. Included among these lobbyists were high-ranking former public leaders like former Democratic House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt (MO) and Kenneth Duberstein, Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff. Much of this lobbying is done through elite K Street firms that specialize in hiring government insiders. Yet there are also bank-funded front groups like the Chamber of Commerce that deploy lobbyists on behalf of the big banks.
3. Wall Street Literally Occupies Washington By Placing Its Staff In Government Positions: Shortly after Clinton signed into law the repeal of the firewall between commercial and investment banking, his Treasury Secretary andGoldman Sachs alumni Robert Rubin left the government to work for newly-formed Citigroup — whose merger was only possible thanks to the policies Rubin championed and enacted. His compensation at Citigroup topped $15 million, not including stock options. Goldman’s alumni are found across the government, including bailout architect and former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, Paulson’s bailout chief Neil Kashkari, and Commodity Futures Trading Commission chairman Gary Gensler. The revolving door, of course, works both ways. Obama budget director Peter Orszag joined Citigroup shortly after leaving the government. This is just a small sampling of Wall Street’s staffers who found their way into government.
These three facets of lobbying do not include how these financial interests fan their funding out among nonprofits and think tanks, and how they fund media campaigns and public relations efforts within the parameters of the geographic territory of the District of Columbia. The amount of money spent on these tasks is likely formidable but is difficult to track.
There are reforms that can be enacted to combat this Wall Street infiltration of Washington. Ranging from public financing of federal campaigns to new disclosure laws to placing restrictions on lobbying from federal public officials, these reforms would blunt the impact of big money on federal policymaking. Yet only vigilance from the American public can get such reforms enacted.
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