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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Institutional Memory

by digby

It occurred to me today that the way to get Wall Street's so-called best and brightest to slink off in shame is to dig into their sex lives. After all, that's all it took to conveniently take down one of the Democratic party's top experts on corporate crime and turn him into a pariah. It's really too bad. He would be very useful right about now.

It doesn't always work, however. After all, there's Rep. Barney Frank, who the Republicans once tried and failed to destroy for his personal life and are now holding personally responsible for the collapse of the world financial system. And he's not having it.

Frank reminds them of the facts in his inimitable style:

In the House of Representatives, the majority party has almost unlimited power over the minority party. The majority party owns the committee chairmanships; it controls what bills come to a vote; and it is under no obligation to consider the ideas of the beleaguered minority. When the Republicans were in the majority they ruled with an iron first; it is no accident that Tom DeLay was known as "The Hammer."

That is why I find it particularly flattering the Republicans now claim that in the years 1995 to 2006 I personally possessed supernatural powers which enabled me to force mighty Republican leaders to do my bidding. Choose your comic book hero -- I was all of them.

I wish I had the power to force the Republican leadership to do my bidding! If I had had that power, I would have used it to block the impeachment of Bill Clinton, to stop the war in Iraq, to prevent large tax cuts for the extremely wealthy, and to stop government intervention into the private life of Terri Schiavo. Yet that power eluded me, and I was unable to stop those things.

According to the Republicans' misty memories of the period before 2007, I allegedly singlehandedly blocked their determined efforts to regulate Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and my supposed intransigence literally caused the worldwide financial crisis.

Fortunately, we have tools to aid memory -- pencil and paper, word processing, transcripts, newspapers, and the Congressional record. And as described in the most reputable published sources, in 2005 I in fact worked together with my Republican colleague Michael Oxley, then Chairman of the Financial Services Committee, to write a bill to increase regulation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. We passed the bill out of committee with an overwhelming majority -- every Democrat voted in favor of the legislation. However, on the House floor the Republican leadership added a poison pill amendment, which would have prevented non-profit institutions with religious affiliations from receiving funds. I voted against the legislation in protest, though I continued to work with Mr. Oxley to encourage the Senate to pass a good bill. But these efforts were defeated because President Bush blocked further consideration of the legislation. In the words of Mr. Oxley, no flaming liberal, the Bush administration gave his efforts 'the one-finger salute.'

The Republicans can claim some supposed successes despite my awesome power. In 1999 they passed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which overturned a Depression-era law preventing commercial banks from acting like investment banks. In 2000, they passed another bill which loosened regulation of derivative markets. I voted against these bills -- but to no avail.

Under Republican President George W. Bush, many federal agencies turned a blind eye to activities which would later precipitate the global financial meltdown. The Securities and Exchange Commission decided to allow the nation's largest financial institutions to "self-regulate;" the Federal Reserve under Alan Greenspan declined to use its power to regulate subprime mortgages; the Comptroller of the Currency decided to preempt state consumer laws on subprime mortgages.

Meanwhile, President Bush himself demanded that Fannie and Freddie increase the percentage of subprime loans they purchased, supposedly because of his belief in an "ownership society." Incidentally, increased lending to subprime borrowers would also fuel astronomical profits by the financial services industry. I publicly opposed giving mortgages to unqualified borrowers because I believed that some families are better off renting.

Yet somehow none of this was recorded in the Republican collective memory.

The problem is that their "collective memory" is actually a post-modern alternate reality that has nothing to do with anything that actually happened. And too many people accept the idea that that is a perfectly reasonable way to organize the world.

I'm glad Frank is fighting back on this. The Republicans are working overtime to rewrite the history of this financial catastrophe. He is a very big target as the public Democratic face in the House on this financial issue and the kind of "Tassachusetts liberal" the right wing loves to use as a punching bag. It's important that history be documented and disseminated, especially to the press who, where they have any capacity for recalling the facts of the past are always willing receptacles of the right wing narrative.

I wish more Democrats would take the time to do this work. Looking back isn't a waste of time. In fact, the future depends upon it.