In the fall of 2008, Democrats took the White House and expanded their Congressional majorities as America struggled through a financial collapse wrought by years of deregulation. The public was furious. It seemed as if the banks and institutions that dragged the economy to the brink of disaster -- and were subsequently rescued by taxpayer funds -- would finally be forced to change their ways.
But it's not happening. Financial regulation's long slog through Congress has left it riddled with loopholes, carved out at the request of the same industries that caused the mess in the first place. An outraged American public is proving no match for the mix of corporate money and influence that has been marshaled on behalf of the financial sector.
The banking committee is the second-largest in Congress -- the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has three more members -- and is known as a "money committee" because joining it makes fundraising, especially from donors with financial interests litigated by the panel, significantly easier.
The Democratic leadership chose to embrace this concept, setting up the committee as an ATM for vulnerable rookies. Eleven freshman representatives from conservative-leaning districts, designated as "frontline" members, have been given precious spots on the committee. They have individually raised an average of $1.09 million for their 2010 campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics; by contrast, the average House member has raised less than half of that amount.
That makes achieving meaningful reform all the more challenging for the committee chair, Barney Frank:
Ultimately, though, Democrats are essentially relying on a "great man" strategy, figuring they can dump as many bank-friendly Democrats on the committee as they want and Frank will generally keep them in line. "We have a lot of faith in Barney. He can handle it," says a senior Democratic aide when asked about the phenomenon. Frank's senior staffers, say several current and former committee aides, similarly outmatch their counterparts. The chairman, they say, is able to use the knowledge gap at both the member and the staff level to his advantage.
"The good news is that we have, in my opinion, the most extraordinarily competent chair of that committee in place. He knows his subject, he's one terrifically smart pol, and he has a lot of self-confidence, to say the least," says Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).