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Business Costs & Regulation

Wall Street Fix: Sleeping Together Helps

A real debate on the financial regulatory bill may actually be in the cards.

Finally, we know how to get members of Congress to do their job. Make them sleep with each other. Or at least threaten it.

The financial regulatory bill moved to the floor this week for the start of at least two weeks of real debate, with an open amendment process allowing either side to suggest improvements. Most will be given an honest up-or-down vote. This used to be the way the Senate operated, but now it’s so rare, it’s considered a victory for democracy (with a little “d”). Whatever you think of the bill under consideration, there’s a lot to be said for a process that at least has members talking and voting.

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Not that there isn’t a lot of grandstanding going on outside the chamber. Republicans claim victory because Democrats agreed to compromise on the industry-financed $50 billion fund the GOP claimed would lead to more bailouts. Never mind that President Obama was never crazy about the fund and offered to drop it two weeks ago. The GOP wasn’t interested then, but everyone’s entitled to change their mind.

Democrats say the GOP just caved under pressure, but the deciding factor really does seem to be the threat to keep the Senate in session all night, forcing a real old-fashioned filibuster. It was shortly after Democrats ordered that cots be removed from storage so senators could catch naps while colleagues spoke that Republicans reconsidered their filibuster plans.

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The truth is, Congress never should have reached this point. Thirty years ago, when I started covering the Hill, it wouldn’t have happened, not on this kind of issue. From the start, both parties believed an overhaul of the financial regulatory apparatus was necessary, and months ago, we reported that Republicans and Democrats were agreed on 90 percent of the elements.

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But then both sides decided they could score big political points -- both with voters and with the Wall Street lobbyists who donate so much campaign money. First, the GOP saw the issues as another weapon in the fight against big government, which a growing majority of Americans worry about. They were also buoyed by Obama’s low poll ratings. But after the health care victory, the dynamics changed. The White House wanted to capitalize on the win, and Democrats were eager to change the subject and show some momentum. They rightly recognized that beating up Wall Street was a winner with the public, and that the issue bore no resemblance to the health care debate.

There’s still a long way to go and no guarantee that the bill that emerges (and one will) will actually help avert another crisis. But it’s a relief of a sort that a real give-and-take exchange on the Senate floor seems probable. There’s no guarantee that the experience will be repeated on other issues -- in fact, it’s far more likely that we’ll go right back to the partisan gridlock. But we can at least enjoy the moment.

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