Wall Street Lobbyist Aims to 'Reform the Reform'

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The New York Times
By Ben Protess
July 14, 2011

WASHINGTON -- An unexpected voice dominated a closed-door meeting a few months ago on Capitol Hill, where senior Senate aides were discussing the financial regulatory overhaul adopted last summer.

It was not a lawmaker, or even a Congressional staff member. It was a Wall Street lobbyist.

Within minutes of arriving, Steve Bartlett, the head of a group representing 100 of the nation's largest financial institutions, was deriding a proposal aimed at limiting the fees that banks charge retail stores on debit-card purchases.

Mr. Bartlett, wearing ostrich leather cowboy boots, barked orders to surprised Congressional staff members, urging them to delay the rule, according to two people who attended. He acted as if he were someone running the meeting, they said, rather than as an invited guest.

Though little known outside Washington and Wall Street, Mr. Bartlett has played a pivotal role with other lobbyists in their fierce and frenetic behind-the-scenes effort that has successfully delayed or watered down many of the major regulatory changes passed by Congress in the aftermath of the financial meltdown.

Wall Street has spared little expense, spending nearly $52 million to woo Washington in the first three months of the year, up 10 percent from the previous quarter, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Mr. Bartlett's organization, the deep-pocketed Financial Services Roundtable, itself spent $2.5 million in that period, more than any organization focused primarily on the Dodd-Frank regulatory overhaul law, including Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase.

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Mr. Bartlett is unapologetic. As in the case of the meeting with top Senate staff members, Mr. Bartlett says he is willing to be aggressive to protect the industry's profits from overly harsh rules. By his reckoning, Wall Street is not trying to dismantle the financial regulation enacted under the Dodd-Frank Act a year ago this month. Rather, as he explained with his Texas twang, "We are trying to reform the reform."

That is not how critics of Wall Street see it. After being saved by government largesse, they say, big banks then moved to thwart reforms aimed at preventing future meltdowns caused by excessive risk-taking. Wall Street "should have learned that these practices threatened the global economy," said Barbara Roper, director of investor protection for the Consumer Federation of America, an advocacy group. But "they're right back to spouting the same line."

Ted Kaufman, the former Democratic senator from Delaware who played a role in drafting Dodd-Frank, lamented Wall Street's heavy spending in Washington, saying, "this is the most uneven battle since Little Big Horn."

While Wall Street has lost a few skirmishes, the industry has gotten much of what it wanted. In late June, the Federal Reserve softened the cuts to debit-card fees, saving the industry billions of dollars a year. Mr. Bartlett's group and other lobbying firms also pressed regulators to put off new derivatives regulations for up to six months, after the Treasury Department moved to excuse some of the complex securities from oversight altogether.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission, according to one of its officials, is even reconsidering plans to curb banks' control over derivatives, once seen as a cornerstone of Dodd-Frank.

Mr. Bartlett, a former Congressman who earns about $2 million a year as the roundtable's chief executive, has helped lead the charge. As regulators put the finishing touches on nearly 300 new rules, he is glad-handing government officials, uniting financial firms and alternately charming or haranguing to make Wall Street's case.

At one point in the battle over the debit-card fees, he said, he urged the Republican head of the House subcommittee that oversees banking to do her duty as chairwoman by introducing legislation to delay any changes. A few weeks later, he visited his friend, Representative Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who co-authored the overhaul law, to get support for the delay.

In recent months, Mr. Bartlett's team has gone into high gear, sending regulators some 100 letters proposing changes to soften the Dodd-Frank rules and holding dozens of meetings with lawmakers and regulators, including the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and other federal agencies.

In February, the roundtable sponsored "Financial Services University," a two-day conference for Congressional staff members, where "visiting professors" gave presentations on Dodd-Frank. A top executive at Visa, the credit card giant, addressed new caps on debit card fees, according to a copy of the agenda. The associate general counsel for Bank of America discussed new mortgage regulations.

Mr. Bartlett, 63, called the event educational. "We are not here to lobby," he told roughly 200 attendees. "We're here to tell you what the facts are, and we think you'll ultimately agree with us."

The roundtable has taken a similarly direct approach with regulators. In a letter to the S.E.C., it asked the agency to reward whistle-blowers who report fraud internally before going to the government, urging that it "must be a specific factor in determining the amount of any award." The language bore a striking resemblance to the S.E.C.'s description of the final regulation, which said working with internal-compliance departments was "a factor that can increase the amount of an award."

Mr. Bartlett, a lifelong conservative who met his wife at a Young Republicans bake sale in high school, has spearheaded several deregulation efforts over a three-decade career as a lawmaker and a lobbyist. A member of the House banking committee in the 1980s, he led the successful push to let the market set interest rates on government-insured mortgages. He also supported legislation that allowed banks to invest in private mortgage-backed securities, the investments that eventually helped feed the real estate bubble.

After serving as mayor of Dallas, Mr. Bartlett landed the top spot at the roundtable in 1999. He said he had been hired in part to "secure passage" of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which repealed some of the Glass-Steagall restrictions on banks set after the Great Depression. The law, signed in 1999, allowed investment banks and commercial banks to merge, creating the Wall Street powerhouses that eventually proved too big to fail during the crisis.

Mr. Bartlett's Dodd-Frank efforts began in earnest on June 25 of last year. While a Congressional committee worked out the final details of the legislation, Mr. Bartlett's said his chief lobbyist, Scott Talbott, sent regular e-mails on the "gory details" of the all-night session.

Around 5:40 a.m., Mr. Talbott signed off with a final, terse message: "It's done," which Mr. Bartlett read on his iPhone a few minutes later at his suburban Virginia home. In late July, President Obama signed the sweeping reform, which threatened to crimp lending, derivatives trading and other profit centers.

Almost immediately, Mr. Bartlett created 17 working groups -- made up of lawyers, compliance officers and finance executives -- to develop the industry's position on thorny issues. The team focused on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which meets every Thursday. The derivatives group gathers at lunchtime on Fridays.

At first, the mortgage securities group could not agree on its stance about risk retention rules. Dodd-Frank requires banks that sell mortgage-backed securities to keep a small portion of the related risk on their books, excluding those containing the safest home loans. Wells Fargo called for a strict interpretation, pushing to exempt only mortgages with a down payment of 30 percent or more. Some Wall Street firms wanted no down payment requirement at all. Acting as conciliator, Mr. Bartlett is now advocating 10 percent.

"It's taken a long time to reconcile those polar opposites," said Mr. Bartlett.

Once armed with a strategy, the roundtable makes its pitch to regulators. Minutes after Mr. Obama chose Elizabeth Warren to set up the new consumer protection agency, Mr. Bartlett left Ms. Warren, a Harvard professor, a voicemail to congratulate her -- and set up a lunch.

A week later over cold-cut sandwiches, Mr. Bartlett implored Ms. Warren to revamp the mortgage paperwork that has befuddled home buyers and has proved costly to lenders. He advised merging two lengthy documents into a simplified, one-page form. In May, Ms. Warren invited the roundtable to an early private showing of two prototypes along the lines they had discussed.

A month later, he co-hosted a farewell fete for Sheila C. Bair, the outgoing head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Ms. Bair received a faux gold watch at the cocktail party, which was attended by dozens of bankers and regulatory officials.

"He's very good at the schmooze, and I mean that in the most flattering way," said Camden R. Fine, the president of the Independent Community Bankers of America, another trade group.

But some fellow Wall Street lobbyists and Congressional staff members worry that his tactics can be overly aggressive at times, undermining the industry's efforts and credibility. To help get support for the measure to delay the debit-card rules this year, the roundtable hired a consulting firm. Some bankers complained that the firm had pressured them to get on board.

Mr. Bartlett also made promises about rounding up 40 Republican votes for the delay, according to two senior Senate staff members. But only 35 materialized, and the measure was defeated.

He is not deterred. In recent weeks, the roundtable has compiled a "wrong" list, with two dozen rules to overhaul or repeal, including executive compensation disclosure and credit rating guidelines. Mr. Bartlett also plans to revisit the debit-card rule. By his estimates, the caps could cost the industry $14 billion.

"I wish I could look the other way," he said, but added, "I've got 14 billion reasons to be aggressive."

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