Wall Street Meets Its Match If Congress ends up with effective financial regulation, Sen. Maria Cantwell will deserve a lot of the credit....
November 23, 2009
In the showdown over the regulation of potentially toxic securities like credit-default swaps, the savviest and toughest battler for effective legislation turns out to be not Barney Frank or Chris Dodd, who chair the key House and Senate financial committees. Surprisingly, the best informed and most relentless crusader is a back-bench senator from Washington state, Maria Cantwell. If you want to see how one determined junior legislator can make a difference, Cantwell is your woman.
Cantwell, a big booster of Barack Obama, is determined to push his administration to deliver on fundamental reforms to the financial system -- and dismayed by what she's seen to date from Obama's staff. "If there are people at the Treasury and the White House who think that the way to get the economy going again is not to close these loopholes," she told me in an interview, "that's disgusting."
Cantwell, who just turned 51, is a former tech executive who won a squeaker of an election in 2000 by less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the vote. She is the kind of senator who is even better informed on the details of a complex issue than her highly competent staff. Washingtonian magazine once dubbed her a "Hill hottie," but in her efforts to reform the black holes of the financial system, and in her little-known but critical role in health reform, her undeniable charm is far less important than her tenacity and brains.
She tends to win arguments not with bluster or horse-trading but with deep knowledge of her subject and a refusal to be bluffed or to back down. For example, during the October markup of health-reform legislation in the Senate Finance Committee, Cantwell crafted an amendment, modeled on a Washington state program, that would allow states to negotiate with insurance companies on the terms of coverage for those eligible for subsidies and for other citizens buying in. By giving the government bargaining power, her amendment salvages some of the cost-containment goals of the more contentious "public option." And the committee adopted it by consent. "Senator Cantwell has done amazing work," her colleague Sen. Charles Schumer of New York told the committee. "The unsung hero of this bill is her amendment on costs." Moves like this are the hallmark of the truly effective legislator.
But the most lasting impact of her diligent approach to public policy is likely to come from her crusade for financial reform, particularly the fight over regulation of derivatives. Derivatives are securities at one or more layers of abstraction from real economic transactions. A mortgage loan, for example, is a real transaction. A bond backed by a sub-prime mortgage loan is a derivative. A package of such bonds is an even more abstract derivative. And a credit-default swap, which is an insurance policy against such packages of bonds going bad, is four levels removed from financial reality. At each stage of abstraction, derivatives invite pyramids of leverage and huge speculative profits for insiders -- as long as the bubble keeps inflating. When the bubble bursts, the losses can be as infinite as the capital is infinitesimal.
continue at American Prospect