Count me among the skeptics starting to doubt that this Congress will ever get around to passing financial regulatory reform.
It's been close to a year and a half since the government bailed out the teetering banking industry and saved the economy from ruin, yet despite all the tough talk in Washington about reining in the too-big-to-fail institutions and better protecting consumers from deceptive practices, the regulatory structure still looks much as it did back when I had a full head of hair.
True, it's only March, and there's plenty of time for lawmakers to get their acts together before they head out of town this summer to campaign for mid-term elections. But the sight of Democrats cheering and Republicans sitting on their hands when President Obama plugged financial reform in his state of the union address was disheartening to anyone who believes that the system needs fixing.
Of course, it's the Obama administration that's probably most to blame for the delay in enacting reforms. Last June it laid out a framework for simplifying the regulatory structure, address risks posed by the largest institutions and safeguarding consumers. But then it shifted its attention to health care reform, and put next-to-no pressure on Congress to pursue financial reform. Then, after the House passed a bill and Senate was finally focusing on one, the administration muddied the debate by proposing to bar big banks' proprietary trading and curb their future growth.
Congress has hardly done itself proud, either. At times, Democrats have seemed more interested in grandstanding - recall the flap over TARP banks sponsoring sporting events - than addressing real reform. And Republicans' legislative strategy these days is to simply oppose whatever Democrats propose while offering no reasonable solutions of their own.
Not that the banking industry is clamoring for action. Sure, groups of bankers support bits and pieces of reform where it serves their interests but, for the most part, the industry keeps throwing up roadblocks.
Small banks have been vocal in their opposition to streamlining the regulatory structure, big banks oppose limits on proprietary trading and any effort to create a clearinghouse for buying and selling derivatives, and just about everyone in the industry is against the creation of a separate consumer protection regulator. (Please, no angry emails from the community-banking lobby. We know you cut a deal with the House to exempt small banks from a consumer agency's oversight, but the truth is most community bankers hate the idea of a separate regulator, whether they are examined by it or not.)
You'd think Congress would have plenty of incentive to pass something soon. Polls show that the public is still furious with the banking industry and, if Congress fails to enact meaningful reform, lawmakers up for re-election will surely be attacked for not having the backbone to rein in Wall Street. Plus, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd is retiring after 30 years in Congress and the pundits keep telling us that he wants the reform of the financial system to be his legacy.
But time is running out, because the further this financial crisis fades from memory, the less urgency there will be to pass legislation that could help avert the next one. And if another crisis, scandal or national security threat comes along and consumes lawmakers' attention, the window of opportunity might just close for good.