WASHINGTON — The House approved legislation on Thursday to erase a number of core financial regulations put in place by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, as Republicans moved a step closer to delivering on their promises to eliminate rules that they claim have strangled small businesses and stagnated the economy.
The vote is a significant step for a measure that still faces long odds of becoming law because of the slim majority that Republicans hold in the Senate.
Even Wall Street lobbyists and lawyers were pessimistic about the chances of the bill, the Financial Choice Act.
“There is zero chance that the Choice Act survives” in its current form in the Senate, said Matthew Dyckman, a lawyer in the financial services practice at Goodwin. Yet the bill’s passage in the House, by 233 to 186, keeps alive the Republican Party’s dream of unwinding one of President Barack Obama’s signature accomplishments. The vote quickly drew the ire of Democrats who argued that Republicans were giving a handout to Wall Street while putting everyday investors at risk.
The bill has maintained a low profile compared with Republican plans on health care and taxes, but rolling back Dodd-Frank represents a major part of the Republican agenda. The Trump administration hopes that by unshackling businesses from burdensome regulations, renegotiating trade deals and cutting tax rates, it can help the economy grow faster and well-paying jobs will become more plentiful.
“Ultimately the Financial Choice Act is a jobs bill,” Speaker Paul D. Ryan said on the House floor on Thursday. “It is why we were sent here, to look out for the people who work hard and do the right thing.”
The House vote comes before a Treasury Department report due in the coming days that will detail the Trump administration’s plans for easing financial regulations. And a lighter regulatory touch is already expected as a result of the administration’s appointments of banking industry veterans to serve as financial regulators.
The bill passed the House with only Republican support. But it is possible that bipartisan backing could emerge for parts of the legislation or for fixes to Dodd-Frank that could eventually become law.
The Choice Act would exempt some financial institutions that meet capital and liquidity requirements from many of Dodd-Frank’s restrictions that limit risk-taking. It would also replace Dodd-Frank’s method of dealing with large and failing financial institutions, known as the orderly liquidation authority — which critics say reinforces the idea that some banks are too big to fail — with a new bankruptcy code provision.
In addition, the legislation would weaken the powers of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Under the proposed law, the president could fire the agency’s director at will and its oversight powers would be curbed.
The bill would also eliminate the Labor Department’s fiduciary rule, which requires brokers to act in the best interest of their clients when providing investment advice about retirement. The first parts of the rule are scheduled to go into effect on Friday. The rule was completed last spring under Mr. Obama after years of development.
According to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, the Financial Choice Act would reduce federal deficits by $24.1 billion over a decade. The budget office cautioned, however, that there was considerable uncertainty in its estimates because it was difficult to predict when a “systemically important” financial firm might fail.
Business lobbyists and conservative think tanks have been largely supportive of the plans, which they argue will ease lending and help small companies create jobs.
“The 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act is among the most inappropriately named laws ever enacted in the U.S.,” said Norbert Michel, a Heritage Foundation research fellow. “It neither reformed Wall Street nor protected consumers, and it imposed massive new regulations on banks far away from Wall Street.” Optimism about big changes remains tempered, however.
While expressing polite, if restrained, gratitude to Representative Jeb Hensarling, the Texas Republican who championed the dismantling of Dodd-Frank for years, banking lobbyists were realistic about actual changes the Senate Democrats would be willing to swallow.
The Senate, they said, is expected to preserve the Consumer Financial Protection Board and the Volcker Rule, which restricts profitable forms of trading by investment banks. A Senate version would probably keep in place most of the rules dictating how much capital lenders have to hold in case of losses.
The most significant relief that Wall Street institutions can expect from Congress is tweaking a rule in Dodd-Frank to allow them to charge higher rates on mortgages that they hold, as opposed to the loans they package and sell in securitizations.
In short, the rules governing the nation’s largest banks, like J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America, are not expected to change very much. Some of those banks have been cool to the Choice Act anyway since they have invested large resources to comply with Dodd-Frank.
“It’s an important first step,” Robert Nichols, president and chief executive of the American Bankers Association, said of the vote. “We are seeking targeted, narrow changes and adjustments to a law that is seven years old, and even the authors admit openly that there are parts of it where we missed the mark and we overshot.”
The nation’s community banks, on the other hand, hope to see some significant easing of regulations on their lending and capital levels.
These vocal and typically conservative-leaning bankers have complained for years that Dodd-Frank has strangled their business with needless paperwork and data collection.
“These rules were meant to placate some bureaucrat in an ivory tower in Washington, D.C.,” said John M. Barrett, chief executive of Citrus Bank in Tampa.
Among progressive groups and Democrats in Congress, the passage of the Choice Act was painted as nothing more than a gift to rich bankers. They said Republicans’ support for the legislation was evidence that their populist promises on the campaign trail were empty.
“It’s a bill that’s so harmful to vast swaths of the American public if it became law,” said Lisa Donner, executive director of Americans for Financial Reform. “It would make it easier for predatory lenders to rip people off. It would make it easier for Wall Street to keep taking $17 billion out of retirees’ pockets by repealing the fiduciary rule. It would make it easier for big Wall Street banks to take the kind of risks in pursuit of short-term gains that go directly to the pockets of the tiny handful of people at the top that led to the financial crisis.”
Democratic political organizations such as American Bridge are hoping to make vulnerable House Republicans pay for their votes at the polls in the 2018 midterm elections. The group is rolling out digital advertisements in 14 congressional districts on Friday to assail lawmakers who voted to change Dodd-Frank.
“Just like with Trumpcare, every Republican who supports the Choice Act is acting on behalf of the wealthiest Americans at the rest of the country’s expense, and the public will hold them accountable,” said Andrew Bates, a spokesman for American Bridge. On the floor of the House on Thursday, as Democrats in lock step expressed their opposition to the bill they have nicknamed the Wrong Choice, they argued that Republicans had forgotten the lessons of the 2008 financial crisis.
“These are not the choices that the American people want,” said Representative Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, the minority leader. “House Republicans are feeding American families to the wolves on Wall Street.”
ALAN RAPPEPORT with Michael Corkery & Victoria Finkle NY Times