TheStreet: Financial Reform: Petitions vs. Lobbyists

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NEW YORK (TheStreet) — While Main Street headed to lawmakers’ doorsteps with thousands of voter petitions on Wednesday to sway the debate on financial reform, Wall Street and corporate America were spending big bucks on lobbyists.

Both sides have just a matter of days.

A leading consumer-rights coalition was striving to assert its dominance in the dialogue by reminding lawmakers that voters are keeping a close eye on the outcome. Representatives from Americans for Financial Reform planned to visit lawmakers’ offices in 25 cities to deliver petitions from “thousands of constituents,” urging them to pass tough measures.

“Today members of Congress will get a message directly from Americans — we’re watching what’s happening with Wall Street reform and we need you to stand up for Main Street,” said Heather Booth, director of Americans for Financial Reform.

As AFR traipsed from Red Lake Falls, Minn., to Kansas City with petitions in hand, corporate lobbyists were scrambling across Washington, D.C. in their own last-ditch effort to grablawmakers’ ears. Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce organized a more modern type of grassroots campaign on the Web. Since the start of 2009, the top 10 lobbying firms have pulled in fees of more than $30 million, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

There are just a few more days left for lawmakers to hammer out a compromise for the Restoring American Financial Stability Act of 2010, which is supposed to be on President Obama’s desk by the Fourth of July weekend. But Americans seem eager to oust incumbents regardless of political stripe, and several negotiators in the reform conference face an uphill re-election battle this fall.

As a result, some Democratic conferees are relying on finreg to shore up their “get tough on Wall Street” credibility, and potentially catapult them to success in the mid-term elections. Republicans appear to be sticking to a strategy of intransigence, with most refusing to vote “yea” on any measure that originated in the Obama camp.

Accordingly, Americans for Financial Reform — a coalition of dozens of consumer, labor, investor and left-leaning political groups, including AARP, AFL-CIO, NAACP, SEIU and U.S. PIRG — is stepping up its push to let lawmakers know that Main Street means business when it comes to Wall Street reform.

“We want this legislation finished swiftly, but it must actually hold big banks accountable for their reckless behavior,” said AFR’s Booth.

The group portrayed its campaign as a grassroots effort against the more traditional and better-funded lobbying effort led by top financial and corporate trade groups like the American Bankers Association, SIFMA and the Chamber of Commerce.

— Written by Lauren Tara LaCapra in New York.