07/02/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Banking on Change?

"The banks run the place."

That's a quote in the New York Times today from U.S. Congressman Collin Peterson, (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, explaining why he's had to change a bill before his panel to suit bank lobbyists. They want less regulation of derivative markets, though many economists believe lax oversight of this trading sector helped produce the current recession. Peterson further notes that the banks give "three times more" in campaign contributions than other groups.

"They frankly own the place."

That was U.S. Senate Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-Ill), speaking about the bank lobby in late April as it thwarted efforts to provide homeowners relief from mortgage foreclosures.

Wait a minute. These are legislative leaders speaking. They represent a majority party that just expanded its ranks in a "change" election run just seven months ago and they have a friend in the White House. Most people would suggest that in democracy, the majority lawmakers might actually "run the place" after being elected by voters who, one would imagine, are the rightful owners of Congress.

But that can't be true when financial sector interests play such an important role in funding political campaigns. Securities and investment firms contributed $152 million in the last election cycle, according the data from the Center for Responsive Politics, cited by the Times. The financial services sector, as a whole, gave $473 million in 2007-08 and a staggering 2.3 billion over the past two decades.

The battle ahead on financial regulation pits consumer interests against wealthy lobbying interests that have made a huge investment in campaign contributions. It's a pattern that is emerging as the campaign season mantra of "change" bumps up against the unelected D.C. power players. They are digging in against a public option on health care and trying to water down energy reform. They are making their voices heard on labor law and tax policy.

In these fights ahead, issue advocates representing consumer interests would do well to shine a spotlight on those caught voting in favor of their contributors' wishes over the well being of their constituents (an example of this can be seen here and here). And it is also a reason to back publicly financed "Fair Elections," which would replace large bundled vested interest contributions with a combination of small donations and matching public funds.

If our elected leaders depended on constituent contributions of $100 or less, the Fair Elections limit, who then would own Congress? It wouldn't be Wall Street. And that's change you can bank on.

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