The elephant's tin ear

WASHINGTON — Some wise sage once observed that the only saving thing about repeatedly beating your head against the wall is that it feels good when you stop. It's a lesson the Senate Republicans and their leader, Mitch McConnell, should have learned long ago.

For three straight days recently, the dour Kentuckian had held his filibuster-threatening minority in lockstep, preventing financial industry reform legislation from reaching the Senate floor. The performance only added credence to the Democrats' identification of the GOP as the Party of No.

These same Republicans under McConnell had screamed for the Senate to listen to the voice of the people in the health-care reform fight when the polls reported wide public opposition to that Obama proposal. But they didn't seem to hear what vox populi was saying about financial industry reform. Nearly two-thirds of respondents to the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll expressed support for tighter regulation of their pocket-lining connivances.

Only when an array of Goldman Sachs executives came before a Senate star-chamber committee, and emphatically if unintentionally highlighted the avarice and arrogance of the Wall Street banking breed, did the Senate Republicans allow the debate to go forward.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, quick to grasp the political gift handed him by the Republican stonewalling and the damaging testimony of the Goldman Sachs executives, had talked of keeping the Senate in a rare overnight session to underscore the Republican obstructionism.

One concession made by Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, was dropping a proposal that would have required the banking industry to maintain a $50 billion fund to close failing banks. Republicans argued it would be a permanent bailout vehicle.

The question now is how long McConnell and Co. will continue to buck the public demand for reform by pressing for amendments. No matter how they are packaged or how worthy, they will be widely cast by the Democrats as efforts to water down regulation of questionable Wall Street practices.

As the debate in the Senate finally proceeds, President Obama has already been out on the campaign trail taking political advantage of the Senate Republicans' tin ear toward the public demand for Wall Street reform.

Denying McConnell's early charge that his bill would mean more taxpayer bailouts, he told a crowd in Quincy, Ill., earlier this week "there can be some legitimate differences on certain issues, but the bottom line is consumers have to be protected. We have to end bailouts. We've got to make sure that these trading practices are out in the open. We've got to make sure that people have a say in terms of how these firms operate so they're more accountable....

"What I don't want is a deal made that is written by the financial industry lobbyists. We've had enough of that. I want to listen to what they have to say, but I don't them writing the bill. I don't want Democrats and Republicans agreeing to a bill written by them, for them. I want a bill that's written for you, for the American people."

The Senate Republicans in offering a host of amendments will prolong the debate, and they maintain a sufficient minority to filibuster any legislation. But the longer the debate goes on, the longer they will face public ire, particularly if their efforts are seen in defense of Wall Street bigwigs like those embarrassed by the testimony of the Goldman Sachs executives.

A principal argument will be over the Obama plan's creation of a consumer protection agency that would require financial institutions to provide buyers of mortgages and other loans with more detailed information on their conditions and obligations. It would also oversee complicated other transactions that have left buyers confused or in the dark in the past.

In all this, the Republicans must weigh the political risk in further drawing out the debate on an issue, unlike health-care reform, in which it will be much more difficult to present themselves as representing the public will. In the end, whatever benefit is accrued from passage likely will go to Obama, and defeat will only reinforce the GOP's image as the Party of No.

Jules Witcover's latest book, on the Nixon-Agnew relationship, "Very Strange Bedfellows," has just been published by Public Affairs Press. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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