Washington Congress on Thursday passed the stiffest restrictions on banks and Wall Street since the Great Depression, clamping down on lending practices and expanding consumer protections to prevent a repeat of the 2008 meltdown that knocked the economy to its knees.
A year in the making and 22 months after the collapse of Lehman Brothers triggered a worldwide panic in credit and other markets, the bill cleared its final hurdle with a 60-39 Senate vote. It now goes to the White House for President Barack Obama’s signature, expected as early as Wednesday.
The law will give the government new powers to break up companies that threaten the economy, create a new agency to guard consumers in their financial transactions and shine a light into shadow financial markets that escaped the oversight of regulators. The vote came on the same day that Goldman Sachs & Co. agreed to pay a record $550 million to settle charges that it misled buyers of mortgage-related investments.
From storefront payday lenders to the biggest banking and investment houses on Wall Street, few players in the financial world are immune to the bill’s reach. Consumer and investor transactions, whether simple debit card swipes or the most complex securities trades, face new safeguards or restrictions.
A powerful council of regulators would be on the lookout for risks across the finance system. Large, failing financial institutions would be liquidated and the costs assessed on their surviving peers. The Federal Reserve is getting new powers while falling under greater congressional scrutiny.
“I’m about to sign Wall Street reform into law, to protect consumers and lay the foundation for a stronger and safer financial system, one that is innovative, creative, competitive and far less prone to panic and collapse,” Obama said.
“Unless your business model depends on cutting corners or bilking your customers, you have nothing to fear.”
Republicans said the bill is a vast federal overreach that will drive financial-sector jobs overseas. Before the final vote was even cast, House Republican leader John Boehner called for its repeal.
At an eye-glazing 390,000 words — half the size of the King James Bible — the legislation doesn’t offer a quick remedy, however. Rather, it lays down prescriptions for regulators to act. In many cases, the real impact won’t be felt for years.
One of the top regulators who will be charged with implementing the law, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, said the Senate vote represents a “far-reaching step toward preventing a replay of the recent financial crisis.”
The Senate’s final passage of the bill, two weeks after the House approved it, is a welcome achievement for a president and congressional Democrats, both increasingly unpopular with voters four months from midterm elections that threaten to put Republicans in charge of Congress. Only three Republicans voted for it — Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown. Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who has said the bill is not tough enough, voted with most Republicans against it.
The law has been a priority for Obama, ranking just behind his health care overhaul enacted in March. In its final form, the package hews closely to the plan unwrapped a year ago by the White House and in some ways is even tougher. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs promptly cast the vote in political terms.
“This will be a vote that Democrats will talk about through November as a way of highlighting the choice that people will get to make in 2010,” he said.
The political benefits, however, stand to be overshadowed by lingering high unemployment. And Republicans were betting that public antipathy toward big government and worries over jobs would trump their anger at Wall Street.