In the coming weeks, hopefully we'll be able to provide some insight into the various banking lobbies and how they operate and what we can expect as a bank bailout package goes from blueprint to practice. As I tried to explain on Thursday, the banking lobby is hardly a monolith. While the banking lobby merits interest on its own, it's also a useful prism for asking the larger questions about how much Washington is or is not changing in the Obama era.
On Thursday, before Congress left town for its Presidents Day recess, I had the chance to speak with Jim Himes, the Democratic Congressman from Connecticut who defeated Christopher Shays in last fall's election. The 43-year-old Harvard grad sits on the House Financial Services Committee and he's also co chairing the New Democratic Coalition task force on financial reform along with Rep. Melissa Bean of Illinois. His story offers some insight into why its hard to use simple metrics to explain the story that's unfolding in Washington.
Himes's district includes Stamford and the prosperous New York City suburbs that have come to be known as Hedgefundistan for all of the wealth financiers who built megamansions in his district along side the oldline prosperous homes. If you were trying to identify who among Congressional Democrats might be an advocate for the hedge fund industry it would make sense to examine Himes. After all, so many of them live in his district. Besides he's taken a lot of money from various banking interests.
According to the Center for Repsonsive Politics, he received more money from recipients of the Troubled Assets Relief Program or TARP than any other member of the House Financial Services Committee in the 2008 campaign cycle--over $195,000 which is significantly more than the next highest recipient, the ranking member, Spencer Bauchus, the Alabama Republican. Himes earned more than $144,000 from Goldman Sachs employees alone. Oh, and the Rhodes Scholar also used to work for Goldman Sachs
Still, it would be wrong to assume from contributions or a financial services background alone dictates what a Congressman might or might not do. I asked Himes where he stood on the question of compelling hedge funds to disclose their investments, something that is being promoted indirectly in Congress by Senators Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat, and Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican. Their bill would give the Securities and Exchange Commission clear regulatory authority over hedge funds. (Right now the SEC's jurisdiction is ambiguous and has been taken up by the courts.) While Himes would have every incentive, given his district and where much of his money comes from, to protect the industry he said to me that "the highest priority is transparency." He didn't take a definitive position on the Levin-Grassley when I spoke to him but he was emphasizing transparency above all else which cannot be comforting to his neighbors in Hedgefundistan.
On the larger question of financial restructuring, Himes emphasized that "I want to make sure that risk resides with the people who take it."
Himes is one person to watch as we go forward. If winds up voting for a tough oversight of financial services, I think you'll have a good sense that Washington really is changing. The Fourth Congressional District of Connecticut has been in Republican hands since 1969. That it's now represented by a Democrat and one claiming, despite his pedigree, to take on financial services shows that this are changing here.