What’s Behind the American Banker’s new 501C4

The American Bankers Association reportedly plans to form a nonprofit “social welfare” fund to underwrite a campaign of issue and attack ads from now until Election Day.

Let us connect the dots about what this means.

  • The 111th Congress passed the omnibus Dodd-Frank financial reform law, laying down rules to make the financial system safer and more transparent – rules that require significant changes in a status quo that is extremely profitable for big Wall Street banks.
  • In the 112th Congress, the industry fought back with a stream of measures designed to keep the law from being fully implemented. The banks and their lobbyists got a series of bills and amendments through the House of Representatives. With few exceptions, however, these proposals foundered in the Senate.
  • Now the industry apparently hopes to bring that resistant body into line by pouring money into what Bloomberg calls “six to 12 fiercely contested U.S. Senate races.” If all goes well from the banks’  perspective, the 113th Congress will loosen the rules and liberate the financial sector  to carry on with the reckless, unfair, abusive and shortsighted practices that brought the country to the edge of economic ruin in 2008 and 2009.

Because financial reform is broadly popular, the banks know it would be extremely difficult to repeal Dodd-Frank outright (although Senate banking committee ranking member Richard Shelby, among others, has called for that). The industry’s more subtle strategy, spelled out last week in the trade journal American Banker, is to “pass a series of financial policy bills, each of which is relatively small, but which collectively could have a major impact.”

Top goals as reported by the American Banker:

  • Sap the authority of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which is moving to crack down on deceptive industry practices. New mortgage rules and a first enforcement action against the deceptive marketing of costly and largely useless credit card add-on products are just two examples of what the industry fears.
  • Erect new procedural barriers to financial rule-making. One worrisome case in point: a bill currently supported by Senators Susan Collins (R-ME), Rob Portman (R-OH), and Mark Warner (D-VA), which would impose a new OIRA cost-benefit review process on the work of the CFPB, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, slowing down their work still further and giving industry an additional set of tools to delay and block rules it does not like.
  • Take deadly aim at the effort to regulate derivatives, the vast, casino-like world of complex securities that have proved to be breathtakingly profitable for banks, albeit hugely dangerous for the country as a whole.

These are the goals that the industry is preparing to spend money to reach. To bring about these results, the bankers’ association is reportedly asking members to make contributions that, measured against their profits, will seem relatively trivial: $1,000-$10,000 each, depending on the size of the institution.  Spread across 5,000 banks, though, that could be enough to provide the new 501C4 with a war chest of $5 or $10 million, on top of an estimated $164 million that the financial sector has already spent on the current election cycle, according to the Center for Responsible Politics.

It’s a big investment, but one on which the banks evidently expect a big return. They also appear to be counting on the public, and the media, to not bother connecting the dots.