With Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., officially headed for retirement, speculation regarding who will replace him as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee is well underway. And one option reportedly has Wall Street quaking in its boots: Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.
As the Huffington Post's Ryan Grim reported, Brown is fourth in line to head the Banking Committee – which oversees most financial regulatory matters for the upper chamber – but the three senators ahead of him all have reasons to take a pass. And if Brown were to become chairman, he would have a powerful new platform from which to continue his efforts to bust up the nation's biggest banks. "I think everything from too-big-to-fail banks all the way down to issues impacting the unbanked and underbanked would suddenly see a new energy behind them," one analyst told Politico.
Since the financial crisis of 2008, Brown has been one of the foremost critics of Wall Street's mega-financial institutions. During the debate over the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, Brown tried unsuccessfully to secure passage of the SAFE Banking Act, which would have capped bank size as a percentage of the economy and reduced the amount of non-deposit liabilities that a firm could hold.
Brown's plan would have gone much further than anything that ultimately wound up in Dodd-Frank, and would have been far preferable to the Volcker Rule, the unwieldy regulation meant to deter banks from threatening the financial system via risky trading.
Recently, Brown has joined with Sen. David Vitter, R-La., to once again call for breaking up big banks.
"How many more scandals will it take before we acknowledge that we can't rely on regulators to prevent subprime lending, dangerous derivatives, risky proprietary trading, and even fraud and manipulation?" he asked. "We simply cannot wait any longer for regulators to act. These institutions are too big to manage, they are too big to regulate, and they are surely still too big to fail."
It is certainly true that the last few years have seen the banking sector commit a slew of misdeeds: rampant foreclosure fraud; fixing of global interest rates; and the so-called "Whale Trade" that cost JP Morgan Chase billions of dollars (and yet still won the firm an award). And the root of the problem is that the largest banks aren't only too-big-to-fail, they're too-big-to-jail.
The Justice Department, in fact, explicitly said earlier this month that it is not prosecuting some of the biggest banks for fear of causing them to fail, which would endanger the rest of the financial system. Instead, banks have gotten off with slaps on the wrist and penalties that barely dent their bottom lines.
"Declining to prosecute either the banks themselves or individuals at the banks for financial fraud sends the message that crime pays," said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, another Brown ally. Indeed, if a bank is so big that prosecuting it is deemed too risky to the economy, that bank is too big, period!
As Brown joining with Vitter and Grassley shows, a coalition of left and right can be cobbled together when it comes to reining in banks for the good of the financial system. (The Senate even voted 99-0 recently to end federal advantages for too-big-to-fail banks, though the measure is non-binding.) Having Brown at the helm of the Senate Banking Committee certainly wouldn't hurt that cause, and the economy would be better off for it.