How do you get Congress to do something that goes directly against the wishes of a large majority of voters – Democrats, Republicans, and Independents? Wall Street thinks it knows how: with a rider to a “must-pass” government spending bill.

Last year the big banks used this technique to repeal a key piece of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law and preserve their ability to engage in high-risk bets with the benefits of deposit insurance and other taxpayer subsidies. This year they have bigger aspirations: they’re working on riders that would roll back still more of the reforms adopted after the 2008 financial crisis, and undermine the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the first and only financial oversight agency with a mandate to put the interests of consumers ahead of the power and profits of banks.


Unfortunately, their chances of success were bolstered recently by news that a group of senators on the Senate Banking committee, including Virginia’s Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerBiden risks break with progressives on infrastructure Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting On The Money: Centrists gain leverage over progressives in Senate infrastructure battle | White House rules out gas tax hike MORE (D), have been trying to craft a “bipartisan” compromise with the committee’s leaders who are working to undermine consumer rights.

The likely starting point for these negotiations is a massive bill introduced by committee chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). In the name of helping “community banks,” his bill would roll back protections against toxic mortgages like those that helped bring on the financial crisis and gut the ability of regulators to control risk-taking at some of the country’s largest financial institutions. One of those institutions, Capital One, has its main corporate offices in Tysons Corner, but with roughly $300 billion in assets, it would be nobody’s idea of a community bank.

Nearly 90 percent of the bill, in fact, deals with regulatory changes that would mostly or exclusively affect large banks. Only about 10 percent of the bill involves provisions limited to community banks and credit unions. Surely, this is not the kind of legislation that most Virginians would want their elected officials to be compromising with.

Beyond that, if Warner and the other senators involved proceed down this road, they will be opening the door for still more efforts to use the budget process to loosen the rules for Wall Street. 

Among the other riders the financial industry has in the works are several that target the consumer bureau. One would put the bureau under a five-member commission chosen by party leaders, instead of a single director. Other dangers include provisions to block the CFPB’s efforts to combat discriminatory auto loans and to curtail the use of forced-arbitration clauses with class-action bans – a widespread practice in the banking and lending world, and one that amounts to a license for corporations to break the law and overcharge people as long as no individual’s loss is great enough to justify the trouble and expense of legal action.

American Bankers Association President Rob Nichols told his members last week that he sees “a narrow but real opportunity” for action on their issues. That opportunity helps explain why, according to Bloomberg, Wall Street’s reported lobbying expenditures came to $14.7 million in the third quarter of 2015 alone – a higher rate of spending that at any time since 2008. The financial industry is going “all out,” Nichols said, adding that it would have “its pedal to the metal for the next four weeks.”

Why the next four weeks? That’s when Congress will be struggling to approve a highway bill and a general government spending bill. Having those two “must-pass” items on the agenda is “like ringing the dinner bell for Wall Street banks,” Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenBiden risks break with progressives on infrastructure The Memo: The center strikes back Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting MORE (D-Mass.) said in a floor speech last week. “The lobbyists are swarming this place.”

The financial industry, Warren added, would have a tough time selling its agenda “in the open where Americans can see what’s happening and see which senators and which representatives voted to gut the rules for Wall Street banks.” Indeed, recent surveys show most Americans believe the rules for banks should be stronger, not weaker.

By using the rider strategy and the threat of a government shutdown, Wall Street and its congressional allies hope to jam their unpopular proposals through with a minimum of debate or public scrutiny – with a minimum of democracy, in other words. Their task will be easier, though if they can claim to have bipartisan support. That’s why financial lobbyists have been courting Warner and other colleagues– and why it’s worrisome that some might agree to changes that would undermine financial regulation.

Warner says he cares about the people of Virginia — now he has a great opportunity to show us by protecting our rights as consumers.

Cook is the chairperson of Virginia Organizing, a non-partisan statewide grassroots organization that brings people together to create a more just Virginia.