By Patrice Hill
The financial reform bill expected to clear Congress this week is chock-full of provisions that have little to do with the financial crisis but cater to the long-standing agendas of labor unions and other Democratic interest groups.
Principal among them is a measure to make it easier for unions, environmental groups and other activist organizations that hold shares to put their representatives on the boards of directors of every corporation in the United States.
The so-called “proxy access” provision, which activist groups say they will use to try to improve oversight of corporate financial practices, has provoked a backlash from the Business Roundtable, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other major non-Wall Street business groups.
“This legislation includes provisions totally unrelated to the financial crisis which may disrupt Americas fragile economic recovery” and lead to increasing political battles in the boardrooms, said John J. Castellani, president of the roundtable.
Business groups are also rankled that the legislation would impose costly new burdens on airlines, utilities and other non-financial businesses that were victims rather than villains in the crisis, simply because they use financial derivatives to hedge their businesses against risks such as fluctuations in oil prices, interest rates and currencies.
Such hedging practices played no role in the crisis, though they helped many businesses weather the financial turbulence and recession that followed in the aftermath of the Wall Street storm.
Other provisions of the financial legislation, which goes before the full Senate on Thursday for a vote and likely passage, favor Democratic constituencies directly by requiring banks and federal agencies to hire and do more business with them.
The bill would create more than 20 “offices of minority and women inclusion” at the Treasury, Federal Reserve and other government agencies, to ensure they employ more women and minorities and grant more federal contracts to more women- and minority-owned businesses.
The agencies also would apply “fair employment tests” to the banks and other financial institutions they regulate, though their hiring and contracting practices had little or nothing to do with the 2008 financial crisis.
“The interjection of racial and gender preferences into America’s financial sector deserves greater media exposure” before Congress debates and passes the massive 2,400-page bill, said Kevin Mooney, a contributing editor for Americans for Limited Government‘s daily newsletter.
The powerful new consumer protection agency that is the centerpiece of the reform bill also would provide substantial employment opportunities and funding for Democratic and social-activist groups such as the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now (ACORN), critics say.
Rather than focus on the abuses in the mortgage-lending market that led to the crisis, the new consumer agency would have broad-ranging powers to regulate and punish virtually any company that has a financial relationship with consumers – even those that had nothing to do with the crisis, said Sen. Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican.
“During our negotiations on the consumer bureaucracy, my Democrat friends were not focused on the mortgage market. Their sights were set on the rest of the economy,” he said. “The new bureaucracy is an enormous reach across virtually every segment of our economy, and a massive expansion of government influence in our daily financial lives.”
Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican who also sought to help write a bipartisan Senate bill more narrowly focused on the problems that led to the crisis, said he fears that an activist director of the consumer agency could use agency power to direct loans to favored constituencies, regardless of whether the loans are sound or pose risks to the banking system.
“This may sound a little far-fetched, but you can have the wrong person in this position – there’s no board, there’s really no check and balance – that you can imagine could use this organization to try to create social justice in the financial system,” he said.
Like the corporate boardroom provisions, many of the activities within the reach of the new consumer agency had “absolutely nothing – zero – to do with the financial crisis,” Mr. Corker said. “But this has become a Christmas tree for those kinds of things, because people realize it’s something that’s going to pass.”