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New Book Chronicles Fight Over Financial Reform After 2008 Crisis

May 27, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Judy Woodruff talks with journalist and author Robert Kaiser about his new book, "Act of Congress: How America's Essential Institution Works, and How it Doesn't." Kaiser explores how members of Congress reshaped Wall Street regulations after the 2008 financial crisis.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight: We spend a lot of time chronicling the hits and misses on Capitol Hill.

Author and journalist Robert Kaiser writes about a little of both, focusing on how lawmakers reshaped Wall Street regulations after the 2008 financial crisis.

Judy Woodruff spoke to Kaiser about his new book: “Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bob Kaiser, welcome to the NewsHour.

The book, as we say, is “Act of Congress.”

And you are very critical of Congress in this book. You write about the principal preoccupation is politics, instead of legislating, that members are skilled at politics, but not at enacting laws. And yet they were able to pass this big piece of legislation.

ROBERT KAISER, Author/ Journalist, “Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t”: Thanks to two very talented chairmen, Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, who really knew how to make the system hum, and they did it.

But it was upsetting to me as a citizen to realize how few members understood the issues they were dealing with. These are, of course, extremely complicated financial matters, how banks work, how they’re regulated, so on.

Not everybody can know this, but I — at the end, I concluded that you could fit the number of experts in Congress on financial issues easily onto the roster of a Major League Baseball team. That’s 25 people. I think that is the max.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is what you write about in the book about the passage of the Dodd-Frank law typical of the way Congress works, or was this unusual?

ROBERT KAISER: Well, it’s unusual in recent times because it was a success. Most of the time now, we don’t get anything, right? We get deadlock.

But I think my hope is that this is a real window on the culture of the Congress, which shows lots of things about if — to remain relevant regardless of what the bill is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is it? Clearly, so much of the book you focus on the principal sponsors, former Sen. Chris Dodd, former Rep. Barney Frank. What was it about them that made this happen?

ROBERT KAISER: Well, Barney — any member of the House would tell you Barney was the smartest member of the House. Republicans agreed about that too. He was really sharp. He really mastered most of these issues.

In the beginning, I thought that was the key fact. Ultimately, I realized Dodd’s political skill, his ability to deal creatively with his colleagues, to win the three Republican votes which he did get which were crucial in the end to the success of the enterprise, was just as important, if not more important, than Barney’s brainpower. But they were very complementary, these two talents.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You also spend a lot of time writing about the — that part of Congress that we don’t really see most of the time. And that’s the staff and some really key figures on the staffs who …

ROBERT KAISER: You know, Teddy Kennedy wrote a good memoir just before he died in which he revealed the following state secret.

He said 95 percent of the nitty-gritty work on legislation is now done by the staff. As Kennedy wrote, this represents quite a change in the allocation of responsibilities over the last 30 or 40 years. Indeed, it does.

But this is the point. The staff really does the work. Indeed, in this case, it seemed to me, at the end, 95 percent might understate the amount of the work that the staff did, and particularly two wonderful women, Amy Friend, the counsel of the Senate Banking Committee, and Jeanne Roslanowick, who was Barney’s chief of staff, on House Financial Services, friends of each other, both very smart lawyers, both longtime Hill aides.

They made this thing happen as much as anybody.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you write they not only had to know the substance. They had to know the — understand and work with the politics as well.

ROBERT KAISER: Absolutely.

And they really — they were more influential in the end, I think, I write, than any member of the House or Senate, except Frank and Dodd.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If it was Dodd and Frank and staff — and you write about some other elements that made this legislation possible — what stood in the way? What were the principal obstacles to making this happen?

ROBERT KAISER: Well, I think the biggest obstacle is the one we referred to. It’s that there are so few experts.

So, there was widespread agreement among experts in all parties outside of Congress that something big ought to be done after the catastrophe of 2008. But, in Congress, the usual political reflexes took over, so that, for example, House Republicans, against government regulation on principle, very antsy about the new Obama administration, their natural tendency was just to say, no, we don’t want to do this.

In the Senate, there was more Republican interest, but, as it turned out, there too, Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican, I think, really wanted to make a deal, but ultimately his colleagues wouldn’t let him do it. So the idea of a bipartisan enterprise collapsed completely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So it was partisanship, you’re saying, as much as lack of expertise and understanding?

ROBERT KAISER: Partisanship and ideology, both, but yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just a belief that this was the wrong way to go? So, you’re saying the opposition was genuine?

ROBERT KAISER: Well, it was the belief that it was the wrong way to go held by people who didn’t understand the situation.

So, I’m not sure whether genuine is a good word to use or not. They’re not — they’re well-meaning. They think that they’re right. I don’t agree that they were right. But this is one of the great problems we have now. You don’t really engage on issues in this Congress. What you engage in is political warfare, partisan bashing, one or the other. And the result is that serious policy issues, as we have seen again and again, get very short shrift.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And your writing about it helps us understand a whole lot more about how the institution works.

Bob Kaiser, thank you very much.

ROBERT KAISER: Thank you.