The news that the Securities and Exchange Commission has charged Goldman Sachs with fraud is to be celebrated, as it represents one of the first significant responses by federal authorities to the abuses that created and extended the financial crisis.
Coming at a time when the Senate is preparing, finally, to begin a too-long-delayed debate on regulating an out-of-control financial industry, the SEC's civil lawsuit against the Wall Street powerhouse -- which charges that alleging that Goldman Sachs let a large hedge fund include risky subprime mortgages in a financial "product" and then failed to disclose this to the product's buyers -- sends an important signal about what regulators can and should do.
As Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders says: "While its action was slow in coming, I applaud the SEC for finally beginning to deal with the illegal behavior of major Wall Street firms which, in my view, knowingly sold junk products and as a result helped cause the worst recession since the 1930s."
But the regulators need more tools and more prodding from Congress to crack down in a manner that will change the way Wall Street does business.
That's why Sanders and a number of other senators are fighting to strengthen legislation that is too weak, too compromised and too influenced by the demands of lobbyists for financial-services firms -- including Goldman Sachs.
Here's how Sanders is looking at the coming fight:
The greed and recklessness of Wall Street has created the most severe economic recession since the 1930s. Millions of people have lost their homes and savings, and 17 percent of our people are unemployed or underemployed. Wall Street is now spending billions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions to make sure that they can continue to act in the reckless and unregulated manner which led us to where we are today. We cannot allow that to happen.
Among other very important reforms, Congress must stop big banks from ripping off consumers by charging credit card interest rates of 35 percent or more. That is why I will offer an amendment to stop usury in America and place a reasonable cap on what lenders may charge credit card customers, similar to the limit already in place and working well for credit unions.
Here's how you can help. Members of Congress definitely will hear from the big bankers and their well-paid lobbyists. I think they need to hear from you too. They need to hear about your real-world experiences with these loan sharks in three-piece suits. Let me know how credit card companies have treated you, and I will read some of your stories on the Senate floor.
There also must be greater transparency at the Federal Reserve. The Senate banking committee chairman wants to allow the Government Accountability Office to audit the Fed's emergency lending programs, but bar GAO from naming loan recipients and detailing the terms. That's not good enough. As long as the Federal Reserve is allowed to keep secrets about its loans, we will never know the true financial condition of the banking system. The lack of transparency could lead to an even bigger crisis in the future.
The financial reform bill also falls short on breaking up financial institutions considered "too-big-to-fail." For the most part, the proposed legislation would let regulators intervene only after a financial institution was on the verge of collapse. We cannot wait for the next crisis to solve this problem. We have got to take action now.
We also should insist on an independent agency to protect financial consumers. Putting such an agency at the Federal Reserve is like putting the fox in charge of the hen house. Congress already has given the Fed the chance to enforce consumer financial protection. It failed miserably.
Finally, the financial reform bill does not do nearly enough to reform credit default swaps and other arcane financial products that led to the collapse of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, resulted in a $182 billion bailout of American International Group, and precipitated the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Many of these financial weapons of mass destruction don't just need to be regulated, they should be banned.