LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
We've heard a lot this week about holdups in Congress in passing a health care overhaul, but that's nothing compared to the delays of financial market regulation. Many agree it's time to rework those laws on the oversight of financial institutions. NPR's Planet Money team is working hard to assess the various proposals for market reform. And Adam Davidson joins us now to talk about it.
Adam, remind us - how long has the Congress been about this?
ADAM DAVIDSON: Well, the original plan, according to House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, who's probably the single most important guy on this, was to have this done by May. We didn't get the administration's plan until June. Now people are saying the July deadline that some had imposed is clearly not going to be met, and we're lucky to get anything on the president's desk by the end of the calendar year.
WERTHEIMER: We want to get to the contentious issues, but first, are there basic ideas that most folks, Democrats and Republicans, agree on?
DAVIDSON: This has been shocking to me how much agreement there is. I went into covering this whole process assuming that there would just be incredibly partisan fights between market-oriented Republicans and more regulation-friendly Democrats.
There is, I am finding, a huge consensus, certainly among Democrat and Republican thinkers, economists, people outside of Congress. They want financial institutions that can innovate, that can create new financial products, where people can take real risk and get real big rewards without damaging the rest of us. Basically, how do we have a financial system where you and I, the regular taxpayers, never again have to bail out huge financial institutions? There's even agreement on some of the ways that might look - how you change bankruptcy laws, how you change the laws of financial market regulation to make that more likely. So there is a huge base that Congress can build on.
WERTHEIMER: So it sounds like they're just about ready to go, everyone's in agreement. So I assume that must mean you're now going to tell me not so fast, Linda.
DAVIDSON: Not so fast Linda, yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIDSON: For all the broad base of agreement, don't worry, this still is Congress. There's plenty of stuff to fight over. There's an awful lot of turf battles that don't necessarily fall Democrat, Republican. There are people in the House and Senate who are very loyal to the Federal Reserve, other people who are more loyal to the SEC. So the idea of just a clean brush, we're going to just start from scratch, that's looking really difficult. There's always been this rural/urban split, basically small rural banks versus big urban banks. That still exists just as much as ever, and that's still a big fight. And then there's lots of nuances. How much of a role will the government have in our economy? That's still a Republican/Democrat split.
WERTHEIMER: So how is this all going to affect the powers of the big agencies like the Fed, for example. The Fed demonstrated the huge role that it is capable of playing in some of the bailouts that they did before the Congress even got into it. Will that change?
DAVIDSON: I think the role of the Fed is probably the single most important and hotly debated issue. There's people who say, hey, look, the Fed saved our system. They're the ones who came in and rescued these banks. We need to give the Fed a lot more power. They need to be our systemic regulator, overseeing the whole system. Others say, wait a second, the Fed's job is monetary policy, basically figuring out how many dollars should there be in the world, and they messed that up pretty badly by keeping interest rates really low back in 2003 and that caused the bubble, some think, that caused this crisis.
And so many in Congress, particularly in the Senate, say, forget it, the Fed doesn't get this new power, and that's going to be a huge battle, who gets to oversee the system as a whole.
WERTHEIMER: Are there any pointers that you can give us as we follow this, so we can have a sense of whether or not financial market reform is moving in a generally good direction?
DAVIDSON: There is an axiom that if all the interest groups are a little bit frustrated, a little bit mad, that's a good sign that Congress is moving towards consensus. If you see a plan that the bank lobbyists absolutely love and consumer groups generally hate, or vice versa, that's a good sign that maybe it's not in the long run going to be a workable solution. I think that the key question is: can the Democrats and Republicans, can the leadership in Congress, keep this broad base of consensus together, or is it going to become, frankly, more like what we're seeing in health care already, a lot of different interest groups screaming for their little piece of the pie? That implies that we'll get more of a patchwork system than a real visionary overhaul of our system.
WERTHEIMER: NPR's Planet Money correspondent Adam Davidson. Adam thank you very much.
DAVIDSON: Thank you, Linda.
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