Obama official slams U.S. Chamber over opposition to financial overhaul


Taking a newly defiant stance in its next major legislative battle, a top Obama administration official walked into the heart of the opposition Wednesday and accused the U.S. Chamber of Commerce of lying about what the sweeping regulatory overhaul of financial regulations would do.

Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal S. Wolin, in a luncheon speech at a chamber conference, charged that the business organization’s $3-million campaign against the administration’s proposals was designed to delay action “until the memory of the crisis fades and the political will for change dies out.”

“The chamber has every right to oppose those policies with which its members disagree. But as a leading, respected institution, the chamber also has an obligation to be honest with you, its members, and with the American people,” Wolin said.

The chamber, he said, should “engage in a debate on the merits, not on the basis of misinformation.”

Wolin’s barbed comments came shortly after President Obama met at the White House with key lawmakers working on the financial overhaul, which would tighten regulations and give the government broad new powers in an attempt to prevent a repeat of events that led to the economic meltdown.

Obama wants to move quickly on the legislation, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) told reporters after the White House meeting. A bill based on Obama’s proposal passed the House in December, and Dodd’s committee approved his version of the legislation Monday.

As bipartisan negotiations in the Senate continued, Dodd and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, were optimistic that the legislation would be enacted this year, despite strong opposition to key components from some business groups.

“There are a lot of people lobbying against it. Some of the Republicans are promising the financial community they’ll kill this thing,” Frank said. “But I believe we will get a very good bill out of here.”

With the healthcare bill signed, the Obama administration has begun an aggressive push to enact its financial regulatory overhaul before the November elections.

Obama himself frequently has railed against industry opposition to his proposal, deriding Wall Street executives at one point as “fat-cat bankers.”

But not even during the poisonous healthcare debate, in which the chamber was a leading opponent, did a top administration official make the short walk across Pennsylvania Avenue to the group’s ornate headquarters and publicly criticize its leaders to their faces about their lobbying efforts.

Wolin specifically took aim at the chamber’s outspoken opposition to the regulatory overhaul’s most controversial component -- creation of a new federal agency to protect consumers in the financial marketplace.

Decrying what he called the chamber’s “lavish, aggressive and misleading campaign to defeat the proposed independent agency,” Wolin accused the group of posting false descriptions of the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency’s powers on a special website, “> .

“Opponents have painted a terrifying picture where every corner store is subject to the long arm of the consumer financial regulator,” Wolin said. “Again, that is not true.”

Wolin received tepid applause after his 20-minute speech. And Chamber President Thomas J. Donohue quickly jumped to the defense of his group during a short question-and-answer session. He took particular umbrage at Wolin’s labeling the chamber a “special interest.”

“We weren’t a special interest when we helped you get a stimulus plan,” he said, criticizing Wolin for delivering “a bit of a political speech.” “I think the Constitution is very clear on our right to raise the issues.”

Chamber officials said they have been pushing for comprehensive financial regulatory overhaul for four years. They want Congress to enact legislation but want to make sure some components, such as the consumer agency, don’t do more harm than good.

“What was disappointing is that the administration doesn’t appear to be eager to consider other ways of achieving goals we agree on,” said David Hirschmann, president of the chamber’s Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness.

Lobbying has been intense on the regulatory overhaul, which Obama proposed last summer.

Labor, consumer, civil rights and liberal activist groups formed a coalition to push for the plan and said they had raised several million dollars so far. Officials at financial regulatory agencies, many of whom stand to lose power as responsibilities are reorganized, have pushed for changes to the legislation.

And business and financial groups have blanketed the capital with lobbyists and advertisements. Lobbying spending by eight banks and private equity firms that had the most active Washington operations increased 12% to $29.8 million last year, compared with 2008.

The lobbying will intensify as the regulatory overhaul heads to the full Senate for a vote in the coming weeks. And Bruce Josten, the chamber’s chief lobbyist, said the group would not back down.

“We have a campaign to try to make it workable and, in our view, make it effective,” Josten said of the legislation. “The name-calling and the barbs don’t affect us.”