Last week I wrote about my upcoming trip to D.C. sponsored by MASSPIRG and Americans for Financial Reform (AFR) to meet with my Congressmen about their vote on The Restoring American Financial Stability Act in the Senate. I asked people who have suffered at the hands of banks and financial institutions to submit stories on shamethebanks.org for me to use as collateral and proof of what the lack of regulation and oversight has caused.
While MASSPIRG Attorney Lizzi Weyant and I flew to D.C. from Boston, a driver wearing a black suit stood in front of a limo outside Scott Brown's office holding a sign that read "Scott Brown". As this video shows: MASSPIRG had rented the limo to take Senator Brown to his "real" constituents ... on Wall Street.
Almost immediately after we landed in D.C. I received a phone call from my wife Pamela telling me that she and shamethebanks contributing blogger and dear friend Teresa Beougher in Ohio were frantically publishing the flood of stories that were coming into the site thanks to several bloggers, organizations, individuals, and homeowners who had worked and volunteered to help get the word out (stay tuned for that post).
The stories have continued to come in and will hopefully serve as proof to some of the people I was fortunate enough to talk to in D.C. that millions of American working families have been looted and abused by the reckless and irresponsible actions of Wall Street and the financial industry. As a result of submitting her story to Shamethebanks Angie Burke, of Reading PA, was contacted by Pat Collier of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee because he read her story on shamethebanks.org. I am hopeful that we will continue to receive stories from others and that they will serve as proof that reform is not only imperative, but crucial to the survival of our country.
Our first meeting on Wednesday morning was at Treasury where we were addressed by several high ranking Treasury officials. Among them were Diana Farrell, Deputy Director of the National Economic Council, and my personal favorite Austan Goolsbee, a member of the Council of Economic Advisers and Chief Economist of the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board.
Both Farrell and Goolsbee (the more animated and entertaining of the two) illustrated the importance of the bill passing. Goolsbee assured us that the bill would be vetoed by Obama if it arrived on his desk full of amendments and exemptions for various special interest groups who were spending millions of dollars daily lobbying to squash the bill in the Senate -- a stark contrast to our efforts that day.
Farrell briefly mentioned the administration's "successful" programs, referring to HAMP, Making Home Affordable, and similar programs designed to address the mortgage fiasco. A fiasco that was directly caused by the banking industry and Wall Street's casino mentality and was brought to an even greater light by the Senate hearing and testimony of Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein the day before.
I asked her why the administration continues to see these programs as a success when the only point of reference they use to gauge the performance is the bank's own reporting of their progress. She then directed me to the progress reports on financialstability.gov.
Those reports are crap; I've seen them," I said in response, "Why aren't you talking to the homeowners and people whose loans have been supposedly modified. Why isn't there any oversight or verification?"
I didn't get a direct response. Instead she looked to her colleagues in the back of the room and said, "We'll take that under advisement," and moved to the next question.
I had better luck with Goolsbee, who after finishing a conversation about derivatives in the hallway with someone else, turned to me and like a scene from The West Wing said, "Walk with me."
As we walked down the Treasury halls to the stairs I told him about my own loan modification with Ocwen Bank and how they had added almost $30,000 to the original amount of the loan and charged off another $12,000 and inflated the value of our home by $120,000 in a fabricated IRS claim.
"My story is not unique," I said. "There are millions of people like my wife and me."
I told him that I had stories from people about Bank of America calling homeowners who had 30 year fixed interest loans they had never been late on to offer them a HAMP modification (what I call the friends and family plan) in an effort to raise the number of successful modifications they can claim. Rather than helping borrowers who were genuinely in need of the program, Bank of America is cherry picking borrowers for a program these homeowners don't need.
I told him about shamethebanks.org and that real consumers were posting their bank horror stories in hopes that they would be heard. Goolsbee looked at the site address I had handed to him along with my email address during my non-stop talking and said, "That's a really good idea."
Just as he turned the corner to the staircase I asked him to please talk to the people who were most affected by these programs and who stand to lose the most when they fail and are misused by the very banks they rely on to report back.
"People are getting screwed Austan," I said. He was already half way down the stairs, but I think he said, "We should do that." I still hope that wasn't my imagination.
We left Treasury and headed to the Senate. I called my wife and told her about my brief conversation with Goolsbee. "Toots," I said, "I feel like I accomplished what I came here to do."
Goolsbee himself admits to being out of touch, and I do hope that my sense of him is not naïve. Along with his obvious intellect he strikes me as a decent and compassionate guy. If there was one guy that day I wanted to be heard by, it was him.
Our next meeting was at newly elected Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown's office. We met with Nat Hoopes, fresh from Wall Street and hired to Brown's staff two weeks ago. Hoopes led us out the back door of former Senator Ted Kennedy's office to the second floor balcony.
Hoopes had come armed with the 1400 page bill brutally dog eared and peppered with colorful post-it notes.
Hoopes immediately took the floor, launching into the standard republican "wonky bill" and "$50 billion slush fund" rhetoric and patently false claims we've heard from the likes of Mitch McConnell.
"The democrats are going to jam this bill down the Republican's throat like they did with the health bill," Hoopes said.
At one point in the conversation Hoopes referred to the previous day's Senate hearing saying, "Even Goldman Sachs is for this bill and if they're for it you know it can't be good." A pretty far reach considering Blankfein made the statement during a three hour grilling by Congress in the midst an eleven hour hearing. A statement that could only be interpreted as blowing smoke.
Further along in the conversation Hoopes said, "My boss would rather break up the banks" and "He's against the stuff that was added to the House bill. I think Barney Frank would agree with him."
A few days before Hoopes made that claim Brown, on Face the Nation, said that tightening Wall Street regulations could lead to job losses nearing 27,000 in the Bay State. In response to that questionable statistic, Barney Frank, who authored the House version of the overhaul, said, "I have no idea where that figure came from. I don't think anybody does. It may have just been spewed out by the Icelandic volcano with some of the other debris."
According to Hoopes, one of the only things in the bill Brown was opposed to was the so called "slush fund" in respect to the resolution authority designed to ensure that the banks themselves - not the taxpayers will have to pay for future failings.
Brown, according to Hoopes is concerned about the Volcker Rule and about how to end Too Big To Fail because of the "pass through" tax to consumers. He's worried about how the regulations will negatively affect small businesses who are already doing the right thing.
Less than two hours after leaving Brown's office, outside the Capitol, Senators Bernie Sanders, Robert Casey, and Sheldon Whitehouse announced that the republican filibuster had been broken and some of the Republicans had caved.
"When the American People say enough is enough you will see Republicans get on board," Sanders said in a press conference pointing to a group of us standing behind him.
According to Hoopes, Brown supports a strong Consumer Financial Protection Agency and Derivatives Regulations, regulation of shadow markets like car dealers and payday lenders, and wants to see tighter protections in place for military service-members. Now that the $50 billion fund has been removed (Brown's obstacle, according to Hoopes) and the bill has been moved to a floor debate, we should fully expect him to vote the right way and pass strong consumer financial regulation.
Sen. John Kerry's office assured us that the Massachusetts Democrat would support the bill and I, along with many Massachusetts consumers, thank him for his vote.
The night before our upcoming day of lobbying I sat with Lizzi Weyant and Somerville resident Susan Hecht with Jobs With Justice. We discussed the plan for the next day and how we were going to approach the various meetings.
A born cynic, I wondered out loud if our trip and efforts would make a difference. Weyant, who is far from ideological said, "I honestly believe that this bill will pass and that we will have financial reform in this country. That years from now we will tell our grandchildren that we had a hand in this."
I think she might be right.
Now that the bill is going to the Senate floor for a vote, the debate hinges mostly on the amendments. The amendments that are attached to the bill will either strengthen it, or they could dramatically and disappointingly weaken it. USPIRG has put together an amendment voting guide and will be following the votes on the amendments in real time. We need to hold our Senators accountable.
Despite Goolsbee's assurance that President Obama will veto a less then acceptable bill, holding our legislators accountable is imperative to our financial safety. They will eventually need our vote too. You can follow the votes at USPIRG.org.