Find out more about A New Way Forward and its grassroots efforts to reform our financial system here. William Greider’s new book is Come Home, America.
The governing party faced an awkward dilemma. People were hurting and furious at the government’s generous bailouts for banks. But how could the Democrats do something for the folks without upsetting their friends and patrons in the banking industry? Democrats think they found a way. They are enacting a series of measures described as “breakthrough” reform and “unprecedented” defeat for the bankers. Only these achievements are more accurately understood as “reform lite.” The house is on fire and Democrats brought a garden hose.
The Democratic Party is changing in some promising ways, but what’s impressive is how much it has not changed. Does that sound harsh? I am relying on private judgments from Washington players regarded as the “white hats” on this subject–consumer lobbyists and other public-interest reformers, who for years have labored in frustration to enact laws that would restore equity and honest relationships to the out-of-control financial system. These organizations mostly endorse the Democrats’ efforts and celebrate their “victories.” But a few minutes of private conversation reveals their doubt and disappointment. “It’s a good bill,” they will say, then after enumerating the shortcomings add, “It’s better than nothing.”
“This has to be on background, OK?” one of the reformers said. “This crisis brought down the world economy and yet Congress still hasn’t passed a bill making sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Julia Gordon, a lawyer with the Center for Responsible Lending, did not seek anonymity. “We have reached the moment to ask ourselves Rabbi Hillel’s question: if not now, when?” Gordon said. “I fear we are letting this crucial moment pass without putting forward-looking rules in place to fundamentally change how mortgages are made and prevent predatory lending. Plus, when we look back at the foreclosure tsunami that devastated so many families, we’re going to be ashamed that we did not fix the bankruptcy code to permit mortgage modification. That move alone could have prevented more than a million foreclosures, and while I predict we will revisit the issue in the future, it will be like closing the barn door after the horse has died.”
If not now, when? That question ought to haunt the Democratic Party and President Obama, who has been missing in action himself on key issues. Congressional Democrats are responding to this epic conflagration with the same risk-avoidance tactics they learned during many years in minority status. In those days, they could always blame right-wing Republicans for blocking their good intentions. But whom do the Dems blame now that they have the White House and fifty-nine votes in the Senate and a seventy-eight-seat majority in the House? Their standard explanation for not doing more is, “We didn’t have the votes.” So when might we expect Democrats to achieve more? When they have eighty votes in the Senate?