WASHINGTON — In the year and a half since the Tennessee Republican Bob Corker joined the Senate Banking Committee, he has quickly become a key player, sharply questioning witnesses and working with Democrats to pass legislation.
Corker was one of the first Republicans to back Committee Chairman Chris Dodd as he crafted the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program last year, and has spearheaded a series of briefings with Virginia Democrat Mark Warner to further the regulatory reform debate.
"I came here to solve problems," Corker said in a recent sit-down interview. "I can't imagine a bigger waste than to have a six-year lease here — which is what you get with a term — and not to try to solve the major issues that are facing our country. … I spend most of my time trying to understand the issues and hopefully be able to put forth a solution that works."
To that end, the briefings have featured current regulators such as Sheila Bair and former regulators such as Alan Greenspan, Eugene Ludwig and Robert Steel. The sessions have become especially popular with senators off the committee. They led Corker and Warner to introduce an "interim" regulatory reform bill last month that would expand the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s powers to unwind bank holding companies. The bill was designed to get the ball rolling while broader debate evolves.
"It gets a consensus around this on an interim basis before we move to the bigger reg reform bill," Corker said. "My sense is to do this right, reg reform is going to take a while, but we still have in the interim these 19 bank holding companies that we have no ability to resolve in an orderly way."
Corker is in line to be the No. 4 Republican on the committee next Congress, but Brian Gardner, an analyst with KBW Inc., said he has rapidly ascended to relevance beyond his rank.
"He's one of the up-and-coming stars on the Hill when it comes to financial services," Gardner said. "When he was still a very new member of the committee, it was very clear that he was working hard on this stuff. Dodd was very complimentary, and I think he appreciated that even if they had their disagreements, that the guy was not a bomb-thrower and was trying to be constructive."
Corker's achievement-driven approach to policy may stem from his success as a businessman. He became a multimillionaire from a construction development company he founded in 1978, Bencor Corp., which grew to acquire major commercial real estate companies.
Corker went on to serve as Tennessee's commissioner of finance and administration and mayor of Chattanooga before he beat former Democratic House Financial Services Committee member Harold Ford Jr. by 50,000 votes to become the only new Republican elected to the Senate in 2006.
Corker joined the Banking Committee a year into his term, after former Sen. John Sununu left for the Finance Committee, but it was evident he had already been interested in banking. Corker made the atypical request for a briefing on committee issues well before a spot opened, according to Mark Calabria, a former Senate Banking Committee aide under its top Republican, Sen. Richard Shelby.
"That is the first time I can remember any member off the committee ask that," said Calabria, who is now a director of financial regulation studies at the Cato Institute. "He had an early interest in what was going on with the housing market even before some committee members did."
Corker has also won the attention of bankers, including some who did not start out in his camp.
"I was a Harold Ford supporter … but I have great, great respect for Sen. Corker and what he does," said Sammy Stuard, the president and chief executive of the $755 million-asset F&M Bank in Clarksville, Tenn. "He's certainly done a great job for our industry. I think a lot of what he's accomplished on the Hill is he has gained great respect; he is very knowledgeable, and he is somebody that does get into the issues."
Corker does not always conform to partisan positions. For example, while House Republicans have taken their own approach to regulatory reform, he is willing to work with Democrats to craft a bill. Still, he has doubts about the Obama administration's plan, which he says cuts corners with comforting terms like "systemic risk regulator" and "consumer financial protection agency" without drilling down to what caused the crisis.
"What the administration put forward is very troubling. … If you really look at what they did, they in many ways left it to the chairman of the Fed and the Treasury secretary," he said.
Like many lawmakers, Corker is resistant to appointing the Fed systemic risk regulator, but his doubts go beyond typical fears about jeopardizing its independence to a more fundamental issue: Is such regulation realistic?
"One question that needs to be asked is, if we had proper regulation at the various functioning levels, do we need a systemic regulator?" he said.
"We moved on to debate whether we need a systemic regulator, but what we might have done is look at what actually caused the problem. For us to think that instead of doing that, what we can do is to create a systemic regulator who can solve everything, is just a very shortsighted and superficial way for us to look at reg reform."
Corker said consumer protection needs to be improved — but disagrees that creating a new consumer financial protection agency is necessary. He considers ridiculous the administration's proposed requirement that banks first offer "plain vanilla" products.
"Consumer protection is something that's important. The way it's been presented, though, is bizarre," he said. "The fact that the federal government is going to decide certain products that financial institutions offer for sale first — when I heard that I thought surely someone when they were all thinking about it would have raised their hand and talked about how ludicrous that is."
Though Democratic leaders have committed to creating a new agency, Corker holds out hope the idea will be scrapped.
"Privately, many leading Democrats have problems with what was proposed by the administration, so we'll see where it goes," he said. "It's possible that we look at something where the consumer protection piece is embedded, but more strongly embedded in the various entities that now regulate. Folks on the other side of the aisle are going to see something done there."
Corker said he teamed up with Warner because he wanted to hash out issues with a business-savvy Democrat.
"Reg reform is a very complex issue," he said. "Mark had a business background and had been a governor. We had no connection prior to him coming into the Senate, but I just tried to find somebody on the other side of the aisle that had a business background that I thought might want to work through these issues pragmatically, and he seemed like a natural fit. … So, we have started having these meetings, and it has evolved into introducing a bill on resolution."
The relationship is among Corker's strongest on the panel.
"Corker has become one of the favorite Republicans for Democrats such as Virginia's Mark Warner," said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "Corker votes pretty much a straight GOP line, but he doesn't come across as especially partisan. He's clearly willing to work with Democrats, who control the Senate lopsidedly, so that he can get something done."
Not everyone views Corker's preference for compromising as an asset.
"He is eager to fix every problem that comes along, and charges full-speed ahead on whatever it is he decides needs to be addressed at the moment, until he finds something else to tackle," said one Republican aide who refused to be named. "That is not to say he charges ahead uninformed — the guy puts more work into understanding whatever the issue is and getting into the details than any member I know of — but there is not a solution to every problem."
Unlike most, Corker routinely sits through entire hearings, withholding opening statements — which he regards as a waste of time — to save his breath for questions. During a hearing in June, Corker asked Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner whether the administration had a vested interest in proposing so much new power to the Fed, hinting that it may benefit Obama adviser Lawrence Summers, who helped put the plan together and is a leading candidate to head the central bank.
"The Fed was the clear winner in this," Corker said at the time. "Would it make sense for the government to in writing tell all of us that no one involved in creating this at the White House or cabinet will be appointed as Fed chairman?"
And at a hearing this month, Corker pressed Comptroller of the Currency John Dugan to confirm a report that Geithner had ripped into regulators during a private meeting, requesting they fall in line on regulatory reform.
Corker comes across as sharp but not ostentatious. He speaks with a folksy drawl, and his office proudly offers individually wrapped home-state goodies like Little Debbie muffins and Moonpie cookies.
One apparent fan is Dodd, who goes out of his way to praise Corker's points during hearings and for supporting legislation. The admiration appears to be mutual. Though Corker admits "a frustration" with the committee's approach to regulatory reform, he is quick to reject any suggestion that he is critical of the chairman.
"Nobody in the Senate has been kinder to me than Chris Dodd," Corker said. "If you look at the rapport we have in the committee meetings, he's been very, very good for me to work with."
Their relationship was cemented during negotiations over Tarp. Shelby, the panel's senior Republican, bowed out and Corker was one of a handful of GOP members who pledged to assist Dodd.
Observers said Corker has a take-charge attitude. He regularly reaches out to bankers, regulators and academics to learn the issues and scours the newspapers faithfully each morning for the latest developments.
Just about every source contacted for this story described Corker as "pragmatic."
When asked if the description is accurate, Corker said, "I hope it is."
"When you look at our financial institutions there really isn't anything partisan about it," he said. "We want to have a functioning system."
At one point in the interview, Corker started to discuss differing philosophical outlooks, ranging from more free-market capitalism to heavier-handed government intervention, which sounded as if it would wind up generalizing the administration's view. But he abruptly cut himself off, apparently thinking better of it.
"The 'gotcha' stuff to me is not particularly productive, unless you see somebody being totally disingenuous, and that doesn't happen very often," he said. "I hope whenever I think about saying something like what I just might have said to you — that maybe doesn't add in a constructive way to where we are going — I just don't say it. I would rather move us in a constructive direction."