Bipartisan Blight

Robert Borosage

Health care reform suffered the torments of partisan obstruction. Now gird yourself for financial reform and the perils of bipartisan blight.

In health care, lockstep Republican opposition caused months of delay, and empowered the likes of Connecticut’s embittered Senator Joe Lieberman and Nebraska’s compromised Ben Nelson to exact cankerous concessions to forge a super-majority.

So Washington pundits rail against bitter partisanship. Republican Senator John McCain charges that President Obama is to blame for the partisan divide, even though the president wasted months while Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus courted coy Republicans. Sen. John Cornyn, the most rabid of Republican obstructionists, damns the partisan process as a reason to oppose the health care bill. This is akin to a gang of thieves lamenting crime in the streets.

Next year, assuming that this health care bill, like a large kidney stone, must eventually be passed, the Congress will turn to financial reform. In the House, Republicans remain in lockstep opposition, providing not one vote for a measure that would take the first steps towards limiting the ability of banks to fleece us again. But in the Senate, we may well witness not the price of partisan rancor, but the blight of bipartisan cooperation.

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd put forth a strong legislative proposal, one far better than the administration’s plan. When the Committee’s senior Republican, Alabama’s Richard Shelby, scorned that in an extended rant, Dodd decided to pair up Democrats and Republicans on the committee to come up with bipartisan solutions. And now reports suggest that a bipartisan plan may well be unveiled in January, with Dodd pushing for an early vote.

Hold onto your wallets. We don’t yet know what is in the bipartisan bill, but we do know what has been kicked to the curb. Shelby announced one price for his cooperation: no new agency to protect consumers from financial fraud or abuse. Want Republican cooperation? Then the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency—with a mandate to police everything from mortgage fraud to preposterous bank overdraft charges—is verboten. Grateful banking lobbyists will insure him a lucrative retirement.

We continue to suffer a pandemic of bank fraud and abuse. In the housing bubble, mortgage companies rewarded brokers for peddling exotic mortgages to customers that the brokers knew couldn’t afford them and didn’t understand them. Now, banks are raking in record sums from overdraft charges, credit card fees, and preposterous ATM charges. Payday lenders are pocketing the equivalent of 1,000 percent interest from the poorest working people.

The White House has sensibly championed a new agency devoted not to the health of the banks but to the protection of consumers. Already the banking lobby succeeded in weakening the proposal in the partisan House, exempting auto dealers—hell, we know they are honest, right?—and over 90 percent of all lending institutions, and eliminating the mandate to offer "Wonder bread" or plain vanilla loans along with the exotica banks prefer to peddle.

But that was with House Republicans in opposition. In the Senate, the price of bipartisanship is to trash the whole concept. Caveat emptor, baby.

The bipartisan blight is not limited to banking reform. A bipartisan majority is now lining up in the Senate to confirm Ben Bernanke to a second term as head of the Federal Reserve, without demanding an audit of the Fed’s books to review the terms and conditions of the deals he made as he shoveled literally trillions in public subsidies and guarantees and swaps to private financial institutions both here and abroad.

Similarly, bipartisan support will be arranged—although with Republicans supplying most of the votes—for the $50 billion supplemental to support the escalation in Afghanistan.

And, most perniciously, senators in both parties are lining up colleagues to support a bipartisan commission to provide cover for cutting Social Security and Medicare.

Why is bipartisan blight so toxic? Because it generally means that more conservative Democrats will have made common cause with the less rabid reactionaries in the Republican Party. At best, the result reflects the views of powerful entrenched interests that buy into both parties. At worst, it reflects both parties seeking to avoid responsibility for undertaking measures the establishment wants and the vast majority of Americans oppose. The bank bailout stays secreted, while Bernanke gets confirmed. Consumers get ditched. The war gets funded. Seniors take a hit.

Partisan rancor is debilitating; stalemate fatal. But bipartisan accord is too often more affliction than antidote. We’d be far better off getting rid of the Senate filibuster and allowing majorities to rule. Hold them accountable if they fail; re-elect them if they deliver. But don’t give a minority the power either to obstruct or to set the price of bipartisan accord.

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