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Wall Street's War

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Then reform advocates started reading the fine print of the Lincoln deal, and realized that all those Wall Street lobbyists had really been earning their money.

That same day the GOP amendment failed, the derivatives expert Adam White was at his home in Georgia, poring over a "redline" version of the Lincoln amendment, in which changes to the bill are tracked in bold. When he came to a key passage on page 570, he saw that it had a single line through it, meaning it had been removed. The line read, "Except as provided in paragraph (3), it shall be unlawful to enter into a swap that is required to be cleared unless such swap shall be submitted for clearing."

Translation: It was no longer illegal to trade many uncleared swaps. Wall Street would be free to go on trading these monstrosities by the gazillions, largely in the dark. "Regulators can't say any longer if you don't clear it, it's illegal," says White.

Once he noticed that giant loophole, White went back and found a host of other curlicues in the text that collectively cut the balls out of the Lincoln amendment. On page 574, a new section was added denying the Commodity Futures Trading Commission the power to force clearinghouses to accept swaps for clearing. On page 706, two lines were added making it impossible for buyers who get sold an uncleared swap to void the deal. Taken altogether, the changes amount to what White describes as a "Trojan Horse" amendment: hundreds of pages of rigid rules about clearing swaps, with a few cleverly concealed clauses that make blowing off those rules no big deal. Michael Greenberger, a former official with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission who has been fighting for derivatives reform, describes the textual trickery as a "circle of doom. Despite the pages and pages of regulations, violating them is risk-free."

On May 18th, as the clock ran out on the deadline to file amendments, reform-minded Democrats staged a concerted push to close the loopholes. But when Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington offered a proposal to eliminate the "Trojan Horse" sham, Reid tried to slam the door on her and everyone else working to strengthen reform. The majority leader called for a vote to end debate – a move that would squelch any remaining amendments. This extraordinary decision to cut off discussion of our one, best shot at revamping the rules of modern American finance was made, at least in part, to enable senators to get home for Memorial Day weekend.

But then something truly unexpected took place. Cantwell revolted, joined by Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. That left Reid in the perverse position of having to convince three Republicans to come over to his side to silence a member of his own party. On May 20th, Reid got the votes he needed to kill the debate. A few hours later, the Senate passed the bill, loopholes and all, by a vote of 59-39.

In a heartwarming demonstration of the Senate's truly bipartisan support for Wall Street, Sen. Sam Brownback – a Republican from Kansas – stepped in to help Democrats kill one of the bill's most vital reforms. At the last minute, Brownback mysteriously withdrew his amendment to exempt auto dealers from regulation by the CFPB – a maneuver that prevented the Merkley-Levin ban on speculative trading, which was attached to Brownback's amendment, from even being voted on. That was good news for car buyers, but bad news for the global economy. Senators may enjoy scolding Goldman Sachs in public hearings, but when it comes time to vote, they'll pick Wall Street over Detroit every time.

The rushed vote also meant that the Democratic leadership wasn't able to gut 716, the amazingly aggressive section of Lincoln's amendment that would cut off taxpayer money to big banks that gamble on risky derivatives. Not that they didn't try. With just three minutes to go before the deadline, Dodd had filed a hilarious amendment that would have delayed the ban on derivatives for two years – and empowered a new nine-member panel to unilaterally kill it. Sitting on the panel would be Bernanke, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and FDIC chief Sheila Bair, all of whom violently opposed 716.

Dodd was forced to withdraw his amendment after Wall Street complained that even this stall-and-kill tactic would create too much "uncertainty" in the market. That left 716 still alive for the moment – but even its staunchest supporters expected the leadership to find some way to gut it in conference, especially since President Obama personally opposes the measure. "Treasury and the White House are in full-court mode, assuring everybody that this will be fixed," says Greenberger. "And when they say fixed, that means killed."

Whatever the final outcome, the War for Finance Reform serves as a sweeping demonstration of how power in the Senate can be easily concentrated in the hands of just a few people. Senators in the majority party – Brown, Kaufman, Merkley, even a committee chairman like Lincoln – took a back seat to Reid and Dodd, who tinkered with amendments on all four fronts of the war just enough to keep many of them from having real teeth. "They're working to come up with a bill that Wall Street can live with, which by definition makes it a bad bill," one Democratic aide explained in the final, frantic days of negotiation.

On the plus side, the bill will rein in some forms of predatory lending, and contains a historic decision to audit the Fed. But the larger, more important stuff – breaking up banks that grow Too Big to Fail, requiring financial giants to pay upfront for their own bailouts, forcing the derivatives market into the light of day – probably won't happen in any meaningful way. The Senate is designed to function as a kind of ongoing negotiation between public sentiment and large financial interests, an endless tug of war in which senators maneuver to strike a delicate mathematical balance between votes and access to campaign cash. The problem is that sometimes, when things get really broken, the very concept of a middle ground between real people and corrupt special interests becomes a grotesque fallacy. In times like this, we need our politicians not to bridge a gap but to choose sides and fight. In this historic battle over finance reform, when we had a once-in-a-generation chance to halt the worst abuses on Wall Street, many senators made the right choice. In the end, however, the ones who mattered most picked wrong – and a war that once looked winnable will continue to drag on for years, creating more havoc and destroying more lives before it is over.

This article originally appeared in RS 1106 from June 10, 2010.

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Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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