25 September 2008

Cliff Stearns, Born Again Regulator

Imagine my surprise last night when I decided to watch Rachel Maddow's new show on MSNBC for the first time. Early in the show, she interviewed one of my heroes, Senator Chris Dodd, about his efforts to bring some sanity to the Wall Street bailout proposal originally put forward by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. The interview with Dodd was immediately followed by this interview:
As a resident of Cliff Stearns' district, this was quite a surprise to me. It follows on the even more surprising appearance of Cliff Stearns on the House floor on Tuesday morning, where Stearns appears, with his hair flying and his diction failing, to decry the Paulson proposal (Stearns' comments begin at 5:47 into the clip):

Note especially Stearns' comments at around 8:35 of the clip, where he rails against the fact that in 2003, he was holding hearings on the application of FASB accounting standards to Freddie Mac, but oversight of Freddie Mac was suddenly taken away from his committee.

Why wait five years before protesting this change? It does appear that the hearings he references had the potential to have an impact on operations of Freddie Mac. Here is a statement from Congressman John Dingell commending Stearns for holding the hearings, but cautioning that perhaps better witnesses could be called and warning about the massive lobbying firepower being amassed against any efforts at reform.

Later in 2003, the New York Times would write in a prescient opinion piece:

Even without signs of an imminent calamity, it is hard to argue that these financial enterprises -- essentially two huge hedge funds -- should continue to evade the type of rigorous oversight that banks face on issues like capital requirements and new lines of business. Yet it looks as if Freddie and Fannie, along with the home builders' lobby, may succeed in blocking legislation to transfer regulatory oversight to the Treasury.

The two mortgage enterprises have helped to add liquidity to the housing market and put more working families in new homes. That mission need not be threatened by stronger oversight of their finances. Indeed, it will be protected.

So, although Stearns was holding hearings, he ultimately had oversight of Freddie Mac stripped from his subcommittee. This should have been a situation for him to rise up in righteous indignation and insist that his subcommittee get the jurisdiction back. After all, his party was in charge of both the White House and the both branches of Congress. Instead, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae continued on their path to destruction with powerful lobbyists paving the way for them to avoid meaningful oversight. Is it possible that Stearns' agitation this week results from a realization that he was in the perfect position to prevent this catastrophe five years ago and failed miserably?

What makes Stearns' behavior this week especially odd (besides his agitation to the point of stumbling over his words a lot) is that this behavior is entirely at odds with his historical voting record. Progressive Punch notes that in the category of "Government Checks on Corporate Power" Stearns receives a score of only 7.57% and ranks him 267th out of 422 members. When the analysis is confined to votes on banks and credit card companies, his score drops to 6.45% and his rank to 283rd of 422. Further, the Washington Post reports that Stearns votes with the Republican position 90.9% of the time, making him, as Maddow noted shaking her head after the interview, "very conservative" and a "strange bedfellow" for this position.

A further point is that if any one bill passed by Congress can be said to be at the root of the current financial crisis, it would have to be Phil Gramm's legislative nullification of Glass-Stegall in 1999. As expected, Stearns voted in favor of this massive roll-back of regulation of the financial industry.

But rest assured, Stearns' rediscovery of regulation is not uniform. In his most recent abuse of the Congressional franking privilege, Stearns warns against the re-imposition of the Fariness Doctrine:
Since the demise of the Fairness Doctrine, talk radio has emerged as a dynamic forum for public debate and an asset to the nation.


Bringing back the Fairness Doctrine would amount to government control over political views expressed on the public airwaves. It is dangerous to suggest the government should be in the business of rationing free speech.
Now that's the Cliff Stearns I know. Yeah, we can't have the government require that someone should have air time to refute Rush Limbaugh's daily dose of hate.

Cross-posted on The Case Against Cliff.


Sinfonian said...

Sorry for the OT, but I saw your comment at FDL about the "No McSame" billboard in Lawtey. There's one just outside of Fort Pierce on I-95, too ... I'll be driving by it tomorrow and with luck I can get a picture of it.

I'm writing a blog post about it right now, to post later this afternoon. Check it out when you have a chance.

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