Nearly 18 months ago the near collapse of the financial system triggered a recession and caused a public outcry to reform oversight so that the risky schemes of Wall Street would not again threaten Main Street.
But Congress has yet to pass legislation in response to the crisis, and Maine’s representatives to Congress say action is needed.
“We should have passed a comprehensive reform bill last year,” Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said. “It has to be a top priority this year.”
She said the House passed legislation in December that is a starting point, but it differs from Senate Banking Committee draft legislation that is being worked on by a bipartisan group of senators. Snowe said the final measure should meet two goals.
“Hopefully we can preserve the twin goals of protecting consumers while protecting the vitality of the industry,” Snowe said, “but not for the sake of Wall Street, but for the sake of Main Street.”
The House voted 223-202 to approve its version of overhaul, which did not get a single Republican vote. It would create a new agency to oversee all consumer lending and would establish new rules for transactions that many economists say contributed to the economic meltdown and the resulting recession.
Maine’s 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, voted for the House measure and said any final bill needs to be close to that version to gain her vote. She said the House bill finally provides needed federal consumer protection.
“We have regulated your toaster to make sure you are safe,” she said, “but we have not had a system to make sure that the bank loans and mortgages and credit cards that you get are fair and affordable and understandable.”
Pingree said consumer loans should be written in “plain English” and that a person should not need a finance degree to understand the terms of a loan or credit card. She said consumer protection is accomplished in the House bill and worries the Senate will try to “water down” those protections.
“The final bill has got to protect consumers,” she said. “This has got to be about protecting people, not just regulating financial institutions.”
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, once served as Maine commissioner of business and professional regulation. She said crucial to the oversight legislation is the creation of a council on regulators that will look at the cumulative impact of bank and other financial institution policies.
“This panel would be empowered to identify regulatory gaps that pose a risk to our economy,” she said. “This has to be a very high priority for this year. The fact is that very little action has been taken to preclude the kind of financial meltdown that has plunged us into this deep recession.”
Collins said that regulators too often look only at that part of the financial system they regulate and do not look at the impact of a decision on the whole system. She believes if such a council were in effect before 2008, the highly speculative borrowing schemes that led to the recession would have been identified and action taken to curb them.
“I voted against releasing the second $350 billion in TARP [Troubled Asset Relief Program] because there was not the oversight in place to make sure this money was used properly,” Collins said. “We have seen many did not use the funds as we expected to loan to companies; instead they paid out huge bonuses to the people that got them into trouble with these risky deals.”
In the 2nd District, Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, said he voted against the original financial bailout bill in 2008 because it did not include any reform of the system even though several weaknesses in the regulatory process had been identified.
“The American people are still paying for that lack of action,” he said. “I hope the Senate acts and acts soon on a bill so we can get a conference completed and a bill to the president.”
Michaud said Congress should pass legislation now, knowing more reforms may be needed. He said the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission that was established by Congress last year to examine the causes of the financial crisis will be holding hearings this year and likely will make more recommendations to Congress for im-proved oversight on everything from subprime mortgages to the oversight of institutions considered too big to fail.
After a partisan flare-up last week, a bipartisan group of senators on the Banking Committee said they were once again working on a measure. They hoped the bill would be ready for committee action next month.