The Republican-led House on Thursday voted to free Wall Street from many of the constraints put in place after the 2008 financial crisis, the opening salvo in what is likely to be a protracted battle over deregulation of the powerful banking industry.
Big banks, from Goldman Sachs to Bank of America, would face less scrutiny, and other large financial institutions, such as insurance giant MetLife, could escape tougher rules altogether under the legislation approved largely along party lines.
The Trump administration backed the bill, the Financial Choice Act, as part of a multi-pronged effort to ease banking regulations to spur economic growth. The legislation probably will face stiff resistance in the Senate but it provides a road map of sorts for the policies the president plans to put in place as he appoints new regulators. Trump, who has complained about tight lending practices, has ordered three reviews of banking rules, the first of which Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is set to deliver as soon as next week.
Democrats and progressive groups, who argue that banks need more oversight, not less, are preparing to use the issue to animate supporters still angry that Wall Street banks have not paid a larger price for the financial crisis. They noted that banks reported record profits last year, despite tough Dodd-Frank Act rules, and Wall Street bonuses rose for the first time in three years.
Many have expressed particular concern over a provision that would curtail the powers of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and reduce its independence by having its director report to the president.
The House's move is part of a broader GOP agenda - such as the effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act - to reduce the size and influence of the federal government on everyday life.
Dodd-Frank was adopted in the wake of a financial crisis that left the global economy teetering. It took more than a year to pass Congress, mostly without Republican support. The law required financial institutions to carry larger financial cushions and submit to regular "stress" tests to assess their stability, and it set out rules for their liquidation should they fail. Republicans have argued the rules went too far and have strangled economic growth, hampering small community banks in particular from making loans while allowing big banks to get bigger.
"They promised us it would lift the economy . . . but instead we are still stymied in the weakest, slowest recovery in the postwar era," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, who introduced the bill. "Have you tried to get a mortgage recently? They are hard to come by and cost hundreds of dollars more to close."
The newly approved legislation would attempt to ease the burden on the country's nearly 6,000 banks by offering them a choice: If they want to avoid many of the regulatory barriers imposed during the Obama administration, they would have to significantly increase their emergency financial surpluses. That way, if they run into financial trouble, the banks would be more likely to survive without taxpayers' help, supporters of the bill say.
The Financial Services Roundtable, an industry lobbying group, cheered the bill's passage, saying it would "modernize the financial regulatory system to advance the goal of boosting the economy without sacrificing important consumer and taxpayer protections."
For many of the country's largest banks, building the bigger financial cushion called for under the bill would be expensive. JPMorgan Chase would need to set aside an additional $107 billion in order to take advantage of that option, according to research by Nomura, a global investment bank. Goldman Sachs and Bank of America would need to set aside an additional $45 billion and $82 billion, respectively.
Those big banks would be unlikely to opt for that type of help. Instead, the Financial Choice Act would offer the industry other types of relief: Institutions would have to undergo fewer stress tests to prove they could survive another economic disaster and they would get more information upfront about what they would be judged on, for example. The Volcker Rule, which restricts big banks' ability to make certain risky financial bets, would be repealed. Doing away with that provision alone could boost profits at big banks by more than $2 billion next year, according to Nomura.
Under the legislation, failing financial firms would be forced to go through the bankruptcy process rather than the "orderly liquidation process" run by regulators under Dodd-Frank. The legislation would also strip power from the Financial Stability Oversight Council, an interagency agency group now led by Mnuchin, to label financial firms that are not banks, such as Metlife, "too big to fail" and subject them to tougher regulatory oversight.
The bill would also eliminate rules meant to rein in Wall Street pay and force companies to release how much chief executives earn compared with their average employees, a potentially embarrassing disclosure.
The legislation takes the biggest hammer to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, authorized by the Dodd-Frank Act. The agency has toughened mortgage rules and fined big banks for allegedly taking advantage of consumers, but it has run afoul of Republicans who say it has gone too far, contributing to an environment in which consumers are having more difficulty getting mortgages and credit cards.
Hensarling's bill would strip the agency of some of its most important powers. It would no longer be able to write major rules regulating consumer financial companies, such as debt collectors, without getting approval from Congress. The agency would lose some of its independence because its director would serve at the pleasure of the president. And it would also no longer be able to levy hefty fines against financial institutions for "unfair" or "deceptive" practices. The CFPB used those powers to fine Wells Fargo $100 million last year for opening up to 2 million accounts customers did not ask for or know about.
That part of the legislation has drawn particular ire from Democrats and consumer groups.
"This bill is a vehicle for Donald Trump's agenda to deregulate and help out Wall Street," Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the Financial Services Committee, said on the House floor.
The legislation is not likely to pass intact in the Senate, where it would need to garner some Democratic support. But that has not calmed fears among all of the legislation's critics.
"I think people are too dismissive of this bill being D.O.A. [dead on arrival] in the Senate," said Marcus Stanley, policy director for Americans for Financial Reform. "We are concerned about pieces of the Choice Act being taken up in the Senate."