Coalition Battles Banking Lobby

Unions, Activists Unite on Reforms

Posted November 3, 2009 at 5:57pm

Watch out, banking lobbyists. Americans for Financial Reform believes it has your number.

The coalition of unions, consumer advocates, investor protection groups and civil rights organizations is mounting a campaign to ensure that its interests aren’t forgotten in the massive financial regulatory reform legislation Congress is tackling.

The lobbying push comes as the financial services industry has successfully worked to narrow the Obama administration’s effort to give the government massive new powers over struggling financial institutions and to protect consumers.

Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, said the mobilization is a response to the enormous lobbying push by industry groups such as the American Bankers Association and other large financial institutions to try to minimize the impact of the legislation.

“I knew industry would mount a fierce offensive against protection for consumers,— Mierzwinski said. “I’ve never seen anything like it in 20 years. The whole world of industry is against reform.—

To combat the massive industry effort, advocates such as Travis Plunkett of the Consumer Federation of America, Maureen Thompson of the Hastings Group, Richard Ferlauto of Shareowners.org, and U.S. PIRG’s Gary Coleman and Mierzwinski met to try to find consensus about how to better speak with one voice from the public advocacy community.

Those first meetings have grown to a network of nearly 200 national and local organizations, including AARP, Americans for Fairness in Lending, the Campaign for America’s Future and Change to Win. The Economic Policy Institute, MoveOn.org Political Action, National Association of Consumer Advocates and National Council of La Raza are also members.

The groups decided to take a different tack than the usual strategy of putting together an informal information-sharing operation to combat the high-powered lobbying effort, according to coalition members.

This time, they decided to raise money and implement a campaign strategy to take on the financial services industry.

The group turned to campaign organizer Heather Booth. A veteran activist in the women’s and civil rights movements, Booth is charged with helping corral the effort in Washington, D.C., and outside the Beltway on issues such as shadow markets, consumer protections, oversight and accountability, and executive compensation.

Booth said the group has a budget of $3 million to $5 million to spend on the campaign, which was originally expected to complete its mission in March 2010. Since the larger regulatory reform effort has been pushed back, Booth said the campaign may remain intact longer.

In addition to a Washington staff of six, the AFR has field offices in 17 states, some of which are part of the coalition members’ own infrastructure.

“There’s virtually been nothing like this campaign around,— Booth said. She noted the number of issue experts that the coalition has to testify on issues such as a proposed new Consumer Financial Protection Agency, foreclosures, shadow markets and systemic risk and resolution authority. Members of the coalition have also testified at several hearings.

Despite the coalition’s success in getting meetings on the Hill with Members and staff on the House Financial Services Committee, including Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), several financial services lobbyists and their allies said they had never heard of the AFR.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is ardently opposed to much of the Obama administration and Frank’s financial regulatory legislation, also said it was unaware of the group.

“I’ve never heard of them,— chamber spokesman Eric Wohlschlegel said when asked about the AFR.

But that doesn’t worry AFR’s Booth.

“The chamber isn’t our audience,— Booth said. “Our focus has been the public and Main Street. Our focus has been on the issues, not as much on the promotion of one organization.—

AFR coalition members did make noise in Chicago at the end of October when several thousand people protested at the American Bankers Association’s annual meeting there. Protesters, from groups such as the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union, were joined by the Rev. Jesse Jackson to demand banking reform.

“Even though we’re still outnumbered, our cause is easier to support,— Mierzwinski said. “It’s a lot harder for them to make up reasons that we shouldn’t protect the public.—