As Senate Majority Leader, Lyndon Johnson once said of the Joint Economic Committee, “It’s as useless as tits on a bull.— But as that panel’s chairman during the 110th Congress, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) seized the opportunity to elevate the traditionally low-profile post to the forefront of shaping policy.
“Before anybody understood what a subprime mortgage was, or what the middle-class squeeze would look like, or what energy efficiency meant to economic productivity, he wanted to learn it and make it accessible, not just to other Members of the Senate and of the House, but also to the public,— said Israel Klein, Schumer’s former communications director.
More than a year before the financial sector meltdown occurred, Schumer began hearings on subprime mortgages. When crisis struck, he was well-situated to push in 2008 for several critical elements in the final $700 billion rescue package, including a proposal to divide the money into two installments. And this year, he helped Democrats defeat a resolution that would have blocked release of the second half of the funds.
“When he takes an interest in an issue, whatever it is, he is going to end up driving the debate on it,— said Klein, who is now a principal at the Podesta Group, a D.C. lobbying firm.
During his two tours as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Schumer helped Democrats regain the Senate majority in 2006 and expand it two years later, giving his party a 60-vote supermajority for the first time in more than 30 years. He bolstered his reputation as a relentless fundraiser — he hauled in $121 million in the 2005-06 cycle to the GOP’s $89 million — and recruited moderates whose ideologies appealed to home-state voters, even if they didn’t always fit with those of Democratic interest groups.
“I put my all into it, did the best job I could, but frankly it was time for a change and I like legislating,— Schumer said. “One of the main reasons that I worked so hard at the DSCC was to get a Democratic majority so we could do things to change the country and help average families and people in the middle class. Once we had 60, it made sense to increase my focus on legislating.—
Whether it’s health care, immigration or the war on terrorism, it’s nearly impossible to find a major piece of legislation moving through Congress that doesn’t bear Schumer’s fingerprints. And given the New York Democrat’s laser-like focus on the interests of both the middle class and Wall Street, the new proposal to overhaul the nation’s financial regulatory system is certainly no different.
Schumer, the Senate’s third-ranking Democratic leader and one of his party’s top policy strategists, is a lead supporter of the sweeping plan by Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) to consolidate federal authority over banks.
“The present regulatory system has been an abysmal failure,— said Schumer, who authored two key components of the plan.
One Schumer proposal would allow the Securities and Exchange Commission to be funded entirely through the fees and fines the agency collects from institutions, instead of through the Congressional appropriations process. Schumer said the provision, which would result in a significant funding boost for the agency, is needed because “the SEC is just overwhelmed and overmatched by the people it regulates,— such as jailed financier and Ponzi scheme operator Bernard Madoff. Schumer said that while Congress last year approved $881 million for the SEC, the commission brought in $1.5 billion in fees.
“It gives them a certain consistency and reliability for funding,— said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a member of the Banking panel and a lead architect of Dodd’s overhaul proposal. “They have to have the resources, the expertise and the technology to deal with the changing marketplace.—
But ranking member Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) criticized the SEC funding plan.
“At a time when Congress should be exercising greater control and oversight over agencies that, for all intents and purposes, failed the American people, this would only give them greater autonomy and insulate them further from accountability,— Shelby said. “We should be looking at ways to increase accountability to Congress, not diminish it.—
Another Schumer provision would strengthen the rights of shareholders by giving them a nonbinding, advisory vote on executive compensation packages, as well as access to companies’ proxy forms if they want to nominate directors to their board.
In addition to his role on the Banking Committee, Schumer, who turns 59 this month, is also a highly active member of the Finance and Judiciary panels and he is vice chairman of the Joint Economic Committee. As vice chairman of the Democratic Conference, he’s on the short list of potential successors to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). For now, he works one rung below Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), with whom he shares a rented Capitol Hill house along with two House Members.
At the start of the 111th Congress, Schumer expanded his portfolio even further by taking the helm of the influential Rules and Administration Committee, which oversees both election protocols and his colleagues’ office space, including coveted private Capitol hideaways. He quickly teamed up with Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) to push legislation designed to ensure that the votes of U.S. troops and other Americans living overseas are counted in upcoming elections. The effort marked a stark departure from their relationship during the 2008 elections, when Chambliss barely survived the unyielding pressure of a Schumer-backed challenge.
Schumer, who was born and raised in the Kings Highway section of Brooklyn, argues for focusing on the middle class as part of the effort to build a lasting Democratic majority.
“He has one of the best antenna about the middle class that I’ve ever seen,— said Jim Kessler, a longtime Schumer adviser and a vice president of Third Way, a moderate think tank aligned with Democrats. “He’s an incredible observer. If you get in a car with him and drive someplace, he’s looking out the window and saying, Is this the kind of place where a local person would want to eat?’ He’s always got this kind of curiosity about what the average person would want to do.—
Reed, a former Army Ranger who stands about 5-foot-7, quipped that while he takes a more “under the sonar— approach in the Senate than his friend from Brooklyn, there’s no doubt that Schumer has a seemingly boundless capacity for hard work.
“Chuck is an extremely talented and energetic Member,— Reed said. “He’s very affable, he’s very bright. He’s able to engage anyone. He’s got that talent.—
Still, Schumer’s hyperkinetic and aggressive style can be grating to colleagues, and those same qualities have been known to push his staffers to the point of exhaustion.
“Nothing makes him happier than when a staffer comes home with a new idea,— said Kessler, who was Schumer’s top policy aide for eight years. “The negative reputation is that he’s harsh on staff, but I think that people who actually work there would say he’s demanding of staff. … It’s the toughest job you’ll ever love.—