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Financial Crisis Keeps K Street Busy

The financial services, banking and housing industries have been reeling in recent months since the mortgage and lending crisis sent the economy into a tailspin. Congress has made easing the foreclosure turmoil a legislative priority this year.

And the fallout from the crisis will continue to dominate the Congressional agenda in 2009, putting many of those industries’ lobbyists in the hot seat.

Changes could come in the guise of stepped-up consumer protections and sweeping new regulatory proposals for banks, investment houses, insurers and other financial services firms, lobbyists say.

“There will be continuing massive Congressional involvement in the financial services industry, and they will be looking at cures and prevention of what caused this subprime crisis, and I believe they may be placing some blame,” said former Rep. Dan Mica (D-Fla.), who is now president and CEO of the Credit Union National Association, a group that often finds itself at policy odds with banks.

“There will be very direct and riveted action in the financial services community next year,” Mica added. “For those financial services who acted in the gray areas or improperly, there may be a comeuppance.”

Consumer groups will also be at the table, lobbying for new consumer protections on banking regulations, lending policy and credit card fees.

“Our feeling is, at this point at least, there will be a need for consumer protection legislation, and that is one of the things that’s largely been left off the legislative agenda this year,” said Allen Fishbein, director of housing and credit policy at the Consumer Federation of America. “We still think that is necessary to stop the kinds of problems that led to this current foreclosure crisis from happening again.”

Fishbein’s group also will push for something next year that the banking and lending industry vociferously opposes: allowing bankruptcy judges to restructure mortgages for people caught in foreclosures. “We look forward to action in the next Congress,” he said, adding that regardless of whether Congress takes up a new regulatory effort next year, “there needs to be a clearer focus on increased consumer protections within the regulatory structure.”

When it comes to the debate over new regulations, many of the big banks and financial services firms say they welcome the attention.

“Regulatory reform was an issue in and of itself before this liquidity crisis hit,” said Nick Calio, executive vice president of global government affairs for Citigroup. “What has happened in the marketplace over the last 10 months has put the issue really to the fore.”

Calio added, “I think the likelihood of anything happening this year is small and that the issues will be addressed next year.”

Lendell Porterfield, CEO of the banking and financial services lobby firm Porterfield & Lowenthal, agrees that new regulations will be on the horizon.

Noting that some banks, such as Citigroup, have turned to sovereign wealth funds for a bailout, he said, “The question is, how did they get into such a precarious situation in the first place?”

He said he expects more oversight hearings and more scrutiny in the 111th as Congress tries to answer that question.

“What this crisis is showing is that you’re going to be studying the impact for a while and you’re going to have a consumer agenda when it comes to credit cards and lending,” added Porterfield, whose clients include Prudential Financial, MassMutual and the American Bankers Association, among others.

“The financial system is kind of the heart of the economy,” he said. “If you don’t have banks lending money or secondary markets working, your economy stops. So yes, it will be very much part of the Congressional agenda.”

When it comes to new regulations on banks and financial services institutions, the American Bankers Association’s top Congressional lobbyist, Floyd Stoner, said his group will keep a watchful eye on Capitol Hill.

“We are heavily regulated,” Stoner said. “At the same time, we appreciate the fact that Members of Congress have noted that in the subprime housing situation it wasn’t federally regulated insured depositories that caused the problem.”

Many industry lobbyists say they want changes that would allow for a uniform federal regulator, especially in insurance, which is currently regulated state by state.

“From my perspective, one of the most important issues is an optional federal charter for life, large commercial and property casualty insurance,” said Doug Bennett, vice president of federal and international affairs for Liberty Mutual.

“The products that we now sell tend to be more national in scope,” Bennett explained. “There is no reason if you’re a large commercial developer — with properties in New York, New Jersey and Washington — that they should be approved by three different regulators. … It’s kind of a nightmare.”

Steve O’Connor, senior vice president of government affairs for the Mortgage Bankers Association, said that next year Congress will likely need to address uniform national standards to prevent abusive lending. “Everybody’s asking, ‘How do we prevent this from occurring again?’” he said. “And that’s going to come back to things like uniform national standards. … We want one set of rules for the entire marketplace.”

O’Connor said that as part of any reform efforts, Congress would have to strike a balance between consumer protections and allowing consumers access to credit.

“You always have the potential for an overly broad overreaching bill that would unduly restrict credit options,” he said. “So that’s a potential concern.”

He’s not the only one with such a worry on his mind as the 111th Congress approaches.

Jerry Howard, executive vice president and chief executive officer of the National Association of Home Builders, said that he, too, is worried about legislative overreactions.

“Clearly Congress and the regulators are going to be focused on the financial sector as a whole and some of the practices that have been getting a lot of press, such as the subprime arenas,” Howard said. “And I think it’s actually necessary for Congress. What we’re going to have to do is guard against an overreaction.”

While the 111th may be still six months away, Steve Bartlett, president and CEO of the Financial Services Roundtable, said his group has already outlined its 2009 agenda. At the top of the items Bartlett’s group plans to push for is regulation reform, followed by an optional federal insurance charter.

The group also supports maintaining the current tax rate on capital gains and dividends, which some Democratic proposals seek to increase.

“We’ll have challenges,” acknowledged Bartlett, himself a former Republican Congressman from Texas. “Like all legislative sessions, it’ll be like making sausage: You don’t want to see it in process, but it generally comes out well.”

Not all of the financial services groups will focus on the housing and lending crisis.

Tim Ryan, CEO of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, said that SIFMA’s priority over the next two years will be tax and budget issues. The group opposes new tax increases, changes to capital gains rates and the expiration of the Bush tax cuts.

“We expect that to take a lot of our time and energy,” he said.

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