Meeks’ Message From Capitol Hill
Congress began its annual August recess this week. While I use this period to meet with con stituents about district issues, I am also using this extended time away from Washington to reflect on what is going on in Washington.
I hope to help constituents and others develop a clearer view – let’s call it a high definition picture – of what has been achieved so far by the 111th Congress, what hasn’t, and why.
This is one of those historic moments when so many different but interconnected things are happening so fast. As crises have piled on top of crises, a host of unresolved or partially resolved problems continue to accumulate. Our political system is having a great deal of difficulty responding to these crises. The framers of the Constitution deliberately created a system that required compromise and con sensus. Both take time. But, in my view, the current gridlock arose mainly because one party seeks pragmatic solutions to our im mediate and long term problems while the other party seeks an electoral advantage in bogging down the process.
Add the rise of the highly competitive, increasingly ideological, 24/7 hour media cycle. In the quest for market share many outlets prefer to cover conflict, contention, and controversy. Miscues and mischief, distractions and diversions receive a much higher priority than pragmatic problem-solving. As a result, a negative pale has been cast over our politics.
In this situation it is easy to lose track of the issues that have been or are being resolved. Take the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of the 2010, which President Obama signed into law late last month. Passage required eighteen grueling months of back breaking effort, including countless committee and subcommittee hear ings, numerous side discussions, negotiations, and compromises among Democrats and with Republicans, lengthy markup ses sions, committee votes, floor votes, a conference committee (on which I served), a subsequent conference report, then a drama-filled final floor vote in the Senate.
Little coverage was given to the process and procedural questions associated with passing the bill even though providing it would have helped the public understand the significance of the final product as well as the role of the respective parties and participants. Before passage, media attention focused on the possibility that President Obama and Congressional Democrats might fail.
There was a plethora of reporting about what the bill would not accomplish, as well as about the views of critics on the left and right. No wonder much of the public feels that the bill is no big deal when in reality and against very long odds and obstinate opposition from Republicans and an army of financial services industry lobbyists, Con gress had succeeded in passing the most significant financial reg ulatory reform since the Great Depression. A bill that will have an en ormously positive impact on the daily lives of most Americans for decades to come is one of the most underreported historic achievements by any Congress in American history.
Among other things, the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act will put an end to “too big to fail” taxpayer-financed bank bailouts; eliminate the risky and irresponsible financial practices that caused the recession and near-collapse of our financial system. The bill cracks down on abusive mortgage practices; prohibits banks from owning, investing, or sponsoring hedge funds, private equity funds unrelated to serving their customers; creates an advance warning structure to identify systemic risks posed by large, complex financial services companies, products (like derivatives) and activities; and establishes for the first time in American history an independent watchdog – the Consumer Financial Protection Bureaus – with the authority and resources to protect consumers.
The measure allocates $1 billion to fund emergency bridge loans for qualified unemployed homeowners. It provides $3 billion to help states and localities stabilize neighborhoods by rehabbing, redeveloping, and reusing abandoned or foreclosed properties. It requires that an office of women and minority inclusion be set up in every department or agency responsible for implementing the legislation.The bill also gives share holders a say on executive com pensation and corporate governance.
I was proud to be among the two dozen or so people standing on the stage of the auditorium in the Ronald Reagan Building and the hundreds in the audience when President Obama affixed his signature to this historic legislation. For the record, not a single Republican senator or representative attended the signing ceremony. Only three Republican senators and not one of the 178 Republicans in the House voted for the legislation that bans the very practices that precipitated the Great Recession.
Don’t get me wrong: The bill would not have passed without the votes of the three Republican senators whose bipartisanship placed the national interest above perceived electoral advantage. But, what can be said of the rest of the Republicans in both houses many of whom voted against a bill that included provisions they advocated?
The same thing happened with health care reform and the economic stimulus bill. Even in the face of 9.5 percent un employment, the overwhelming ma jority of Congressional Republicans have taken an identical approach to jobs creation – I will address this issue in a future column.