”Too Big to Fail” may be failing in the Senate


Over the last few months, Tea Party Patriots has highlighted Congress’ to both hold bank executives responsible when they engage in illegal and unethical activity. Additionally, we have pointed out that Congress failed to hold bank executives responsible for the unethical and illegal activities that led to the 2008 financial crash.

The biggest failure of them all, however, has been Congress’ unwillingness to end Too Big to Fail (TBTF), despite pressure from newly-elected Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). TBTF, the ultimate in crony capitalism, is still costing the taxpayers in ways scant few are aware – and who can forget that TBTF was the logic behind Bush’s 2008 TARP bailout?

Well, it looks like two Senators are taking the first timid steps towards ending TBTF:

But an amendment proposed by Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, and David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, suggests an intriguing possibility for a future bipartisan agreement: The Senate voted 99–0 late on Friday to end “too big to fail” subsidies or funding advantages for banks with more than $500 billion in assets.

“This is a really impressive sign that we mean business on ending too-big-to-fail,” Vitter said after the vote. “Megabanks are still receiving special handouts that create an uneven playing field — making it harder for our community banks and credit unions to compete.”

The Brown-Vitter amendment doesn’t directly call for breaking up big banks or forcing them to shrink. But eliminating the federal government’s TBTF backstop probably means doing one or both. (Possible methods include taxation, size caps, restructuring, and regulations forcing banks to hold vastly more equity capital.)

Is it a significant measure? Some are saying no, despite the unanimous support across party lines:

Washington insiders dismiss breaking up the big banks as nothing more than boutique public policy. In a piece that ran before the Brown-Vitter amendment passed, Politico’s Ben White wrote, “There is virtually no chance any significant piece of legislation will pass Congress that would meaningfully reduce the size of the nation’s biggest banks or restrict their activities.” The White House doesn’t support the idea, White explained, and folks like Brown and Vitter aren’t power players.

The unanimous Brown-Vitter tally does little to change White’s conclusion. It may be nothing more than a feel-good vote by senators who are playing populist politics with a nonbinding bill that may ultimately prove meaningless. Who, after all, would explicitly support subsidizing big banks? That sounds as if you’re in favor of Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s sending multibillion-dollar checks to his old bosses at Citigroup.

Suzy Khimm at The Washington Post Wonk Blog agrees with White:

Yes, the measure was purely symbolic and Congress isn’t exactly known for following through on its promises, but the Senate’s unanimous vote late Friday night to break up big banks has left some financial analysts wondering whether Washington might actually follow through.

While Khimm and White make excellent points, I disagree with  on the potential impact of this vote – this could lead to significant changes, for several reasons:

1.  Ending Too Big to Fail is the single biggest way to encourage smarter, more ethical banking…and it doesn’t cost the taxpayers a dime. It also diminishes the size of the federal government, an added bonus.

2.  It’s a good way for the GOP to take the lead on a public policy issue that resonates with the American people:

Anyway, it’s Republicans who should be the natural bank-busters in Washington. The existence of TBTF financial institutions reflects government meddling and crony-capitalist collusion rather than market forces. And as far as pure politics goes, embracing pro-market financial reform would be a much smarter way to rebrand the GOP than any of the policy tweaks in the RNC’s recent autopsy. Conversations with staff of some potential 2016 candidates suggest that their bosses are starting to grasp the political power of the issue. For a party desperately in need of both a messaging makeover and policy entrepreneurship, a push to end too-big-to-fail banks should be an idea too good to resist.

3.  While Congress does generally fail to follow through, public frustration with the banks could incentivize Members to hold onto this promise.

4.  Many fans of bigger government will argue free markets will not cause the break-up of banks. While it is true that free markets do not directly break up banks (as opposed to laws), opponents ignore that without Too Big to Fail, irresponsible banks would have foundered years ago, and will fail in the future. Such is the case with every other business run poorly, why should big banks be any different?

As this particular amendment moves its way through Capitol Hill, it is important to keep a close eye on it. Too Big to Fail is long past its due date.