Commercial banks spent nearly $62 million last year on lobbying, another record total for an industry that has become one of the most active voices in the political arena.
While their return on that investment is difficult to quantify, this much is clear: The financial industry's spending helped slow down the pace of new regulation and gained it at least a few partial victories in a year filled with anti-bank rhetoric.
Last year's lobbying expenditures by the commercial banking industry were up 9 percent from the year before, marking the sixth straight year of increased spending, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
The financial sector as a whole spent more than $472 million.
That made the sector the third-biggest lobbying spender, behind the health care industry and general business associations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Among the six biggest banking spenders – including Bank of America Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. – the increase was 6 percent, to $36 million, according to data from the U.S. Senate-run disclosure database, where all lobbying activity must be recorded.
Bank organizations say they are committed to making sure new regulations help the consumer, businesses and the economy.
And despite the spending, banks didn't have a great year politically.
Banks drew fire from the populist Occupy Wall Street movement that spread around the country.
And Democratic leaders, including President Barack Obama, piled on criticism as banks briefly toyed with the idea of monthly debit-card fees.
“It's wrong to say they did exactly what we wanted,” said Scott Talbott, senior vice president of government affairs for the Financial Services Roundtable, one of the industry's chief advocates. “The goal of the industry, as well as the regulators, as well as any interested parties, should be the best public policy.”
'A remarkable job'
But consumer advocates contend the banking industry's lobbying is making a significant impact.
They point to missed deadlines for crafting regulations, proposed rules with numerous exemptions, and a protracted political battle over the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
“They've done a remarkable job,” said John Dunbar of the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity. “They've earned every penny.”
San Francisco-based Wells Fargo finished the year as the most dominant bank in the Washington lobbying arena.
Once a small presence on K Street, the bank spent more than its peers, increasing 46 percent to $7.8 million.
Wells declined to comment on its lobbying strategy.
Bank of America spent less on lobbying in 2011 than it had the year before, and far less than it did during the height of the 2008 financial crisis.
The bank arguably took the biggest hit to its image and its political standing.
“The focus of our lobbying was and will continue to be on being constructive to help ensure that regulatory reform is thoughtfully done and fosters sound, competitive banking that benefits our customers,” Bank of America spokeswoman Shirley Norton wrote in a statement.
The bank declined to comment further.
Winning through attrition
When the Dodd-Frank financial reform law was passed in summer 2010, it left federal agencies with more than 400 rules to craft.
Progress has been slow.
More than 70 percent of the 225 rules scheduled to go into effect so far have missed their deadlines, according to the corporate law firm Davis Polk, which issues closely watched reports on Dodd-Frank's progress.
Part of the reason: scores of meetings between banks and regulators, and the time-consuming cycle of proposed rules and public comment periods.
Bank of America lobbyists or executives had more than 50 meetings with federal agencies in 2011, according to data from the Washington-based Sunlight Foundation.
Wells Fargo held 34.
And with many proposed rules, banks flood regulators with hundreds of pages of commentary.
The Financial Services Roundtable said in June that it had filed its 100th comment letter related to Dodd-Frank, compared with an average of 12 to 14 comment letters per year on financial topics before the law was passed.
“One of the ways they win the battle is by attrition, by ensuring that there's so much activity that things get delayed,” said Nancy Watzman, a consultant with the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit.
She pointed to the Volcker Rule as a prime example.
The rule is meant to prevent banks from taking risky bets with their own money, a practice known as proprietary trading.
What former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker called a simple idea morphed into a complex proposal hundreds of pages long.
“That's something they've worked on more than anything else,” Dunbar said. “They have plenty of time and plenty of money. They will wear you down.”
Talbott said the banks' goal is not to slow down the process but to make sure the final rules represent sound public policy.
“We're talking about new, uncharted topics. It's important for the regulators to do it quickly, but if it takes a little extra time to get it right, that's time well spent,” he said. “Those legislative deadlines are aggressive, and sometimes difficult if not impossible to meet.”
Consumer protection clash
Further evidence of the bank lobby's power came amid the political battle over who would lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a new regulatory agency prescribed in Dodd-Frank, Dunbar said.
Republicans argued the director would wield too much power, and vowed to block any nominee until changes were made to the agency's structure.
They were backed by industry groups such as the American Bankers Association.
Obama ended up using a controversial recess appointment to install Richard Cordray as director.
Republicans bashed the move as unconstitutional and an overreach.
Experts, pointing to possible legal challenges, said the move ultimately could weaken the agency's influence.
“The banking lobby is enormous and powerful and smart,” Dunbar said. “They'll keep chipping away at anything they think will be harmful to them.”
Organizations like the Financial Services Roundtable and the American Bankers Association have promoted their involvement in the implementation of Dodd-Frank.
They argue that some Dodd-Frank provisions, such as capital requirements, could hurt the economy by keeping banks from lending as much to businesses that create jobs, the Financial Services Roundtable said in October.
“It's incorrect to say we are opposed to Dodd-Frank. We actually support a lot of Dodd-Frank,” Talbott said. “We are working to provide our input, our thoughts, on the best way or most effective way to implement it.”
© 2012 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
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