The quasi re-regulation of finance is less than two years old, but it’s already facing the rollback from leadership in a Republican House of Representatives hostile to the very idea and, not coincidentally, friendly with financial interests.

A couple of reports out Monday illustrate the shifting winds, and these developments have implications for the press itself.

Alabama Republican Spencer Bachus is set to take over as chairman of the powerful House Financial Committee from Democrat Barney Frank. Here’s what Bachus told The Birmingham News (emphasis mine):

“In Washington, the view is that the banks are to be regulated, and my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks,” he said.

That’s a classic Kinsley gaffe (Bachus tried to backpedal a bit later in the interview), and about as smooth a summation of the Bush era of financial regulation as you’ll find. The amazing thing is: We’ve seen this show before, and we know how it ended.

Naturally, regulators aren’t just there to serve the banks—Congress is, too! (rim shot), as is apparent from this paragraph:

In the 2009-10 election cycle, the finance/ insurance/real estate sector gave Bachus’ campaign account $752,200, most of it from political action committees, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Democrat Barney Frank, as the guy with the real power at that point, got even more.

Meantime, The Wall Street Journal reports that the SEC, hardly a fearsome regulator in the first place, “is slowing the pace of some investigations and routine inspections as part of a belt-tightening caused by the budget impasse in Congress.”

Republican gains in both houses of Congress have increased speculation that the 12% budget increase proposed for the SEC by President Barack Obama won’t be approved.

This quote takes some stones:

“Why are we rewarding the agency that failed so miserably on so many fronts?” complained Rep. Scott Garrett (R., N.J.).

How to even begin unpacking something like that?


Here’s a story from the New York Times
from almost exactly sixteen years ago, a month before Newt Gingrich’s GOP took the House for the first time in forty years. Its headline: “Republicans May Hold Down The S.E.C. and Investor Suits.”

Joel Seligman, a securities law specialist and author of a history of the S.E.C., said he was concerned about the impact that budget cuts could have. “At the moment, certain aspects of the market — such as investment advisers — appear to be near crisis because of a lack of meaningful oversight or inspection being conducted,” Mr. Seligman said. “Unless the S.E.C. receives adequate support for that, you run the risk of a significant number of cases such as those in Orange County.”

The messy bankruptcy of that Southern California county last week provided a mesmerizing backdrop for discussions about Congressional priorities for revising securities litigation rules. Some Democrats wondered whether the new leadership would become more cautious about putting limits on such lawsuits in the wake of the unfolding scandal, which has already prompted investors and the county itself to sue several Wall Street firms over $1.5 billion in losses incurred by an aggressively managed county investment fund.

Read Clinton SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt on how a Republican Congress interfered with the supposedly independent SEC despite having a Democratic President.

Here’s Thomas Frank in August on the Bush II era SEC:

Now, if you’re looking for reasons why the SEC failed in the past they aren’t hard to come by. Start with political leaders who clearly didn’t believe in the mission; proceed to the agency’s grotesquely underfunded workplace where lawyers had to do their own filing, mail-sorting and photocopying; and arrive, finally, at the revolving door, which sometimes transformed SEC jobs into stations on the Wall Street career path and worked fairly predictable effects on enforcement.

This was an agency whose mandate, essentially, was to crawl out on an ice floe and die.

And my friend Moe Tkacik wrote this last year about the beaten-down SEC culture.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu.