WASHINGTON — A week after House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank laid out a sweeping, fast-paced agenda that includes the creation of a systemic risk regulator, his counterpart in the Senate made clear Wednesday he is on a decidedly slower track.
Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd said he is far from concluding how to modernize the regulatory system, and he emphasized that he is more worried about getting it right than doing it quickly.
Though a consensus is growing around giving systemic risk oversight to the Federal Reserve Board, Dodd made it clear he had not even decided on that.
"We need a systemic risk regulator … . The question is, who is going to perform that function?" Dodd said to reporters after a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The contrast between the two chairmen could not be more stark.
Frank is pushing a series of consumer protection bills and the creation of a systemic risk regulator so hard that consumer and banking industry groups have privately admitted they are overwhelmed by the dense schedule. Frank has already planned tentative dates to vote on mortgage reform and credit card reform bills.
At the same time, Frank appears to have already thought out what he would like to see in a systemic risk regulator, including giving it the power to force financial players to retain some risk in a securitization, unwind important nonbank financial companies and curb executive compensation.
While Dodd is convening a series of committee hearings on regulatory modernization, his thinking appears much less formed.
When asked if he was even close to drafting a bill, Dodd responded, "No, not yet. We are a ways away from that," he said.
Dodd was also resistant to breaking out the creation of a systemic risk regulator from a full-scale revamping of the regulatory system, preferring to treat both issues in one bill.
"My contention, and Sen. [Richard] Shelby and I have talked at length about this, is that we are going to do one bill," he said. "The House has talked about having a series of proposals. In the Senate I don't think we can do that because of the time elements and so forth; it would be hard. So I think our goal is to put together one bill and hopefully have something ready by this summer that we can actually present to our colleagues."
But observers said that, unless Dodd shifts into a higher gear, a bill could be tough this year.
"The fact that he wants to do it in one bill further slows down the process, and I think the idea of finishing it in 2009 is highly unlikely if that's the approach," said Brian Gardner, an analyst at KBW Inc.'s Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc.
Though summer may seem a long way off, the congressional calender is packed, and passing a major bill is unlikely unless momentum for it begins building by spring, Gardner said.
"In order for him to get something done, he has to put his foot down on the accelerator," Gardner said.
Pat McCoy, a law professor at the University of Connecticut, said lawmakers also must weigh whether to strike while the iron is hot or wait until passions have cooled — which risks losing momentum altogether.
"Proceeding more quickly takes advantage of that political momentum and also possibly gives some confidence to the markets that enormous problems are being taken into hand," McCoy said. The downside, McCoy said, is that a rushed bill could be passed "without really thinking it through."
To be sure, the different pace for action breaks down along traditional lines in which the House usually acts more quickly than the Senate. (In the Senate even one senator can delay a bill, whereas in the House, a solid majority can pass bills relatively quickly.)
Shelby, the No. 1 Republican on the Senate banking panel, shares Dodd's reservations about giving the Fed systemic risk power — though a practical alternative is difficult to find — and is said to push for a slower, more deliberative process.
But observers said the differences also reflect different priorities.
"Barney Frank has been pushing for a regulatory overhaul for a very long time, since the crisis began, and Chris Dodd last year was sort of absent on this issue and was in fact entirely evasive," said Chris Low the chief economist at First Horizon National Corp.'s FTN Financial.
Dodd may also be distracted by his own declining political fortunes; recent surveys in Connecticut have indicated he will face a tough reelection race in 2010.
"It's hard for him to figure out what his agenda is right now," said Low. "He's facing a tough race in Connecticut … . He is undoubtedly distracted by that."
It also comes down to a difference in personalities. "Barney Frank is an absolute ball of energy," said Low. "Chris Dodd has also always been more deliberative.... It's not necessarily a bad thing... but given the nature of the crisis that we are in, nobody has any patience right now."