Bank Lobbyists See Writing On Wall — Publicly Support Financial Reform

Behind the scenes, there are stealth big business campaigns going on to block any major changes that would hurt Wall Street. But in the light of day bankers are flooding Capitol Hill with letters, ads and face-to-face meetings with a unified message even if they disagree on the specifics of financial reform: Do something.

Lobbyists for banks big and small and financial institutions that will be dramatically affected by reform told me today that it’s pretty clear legislation imposing stricter regulations on Wall Street will pass the Senate. They said campaigning publicly against it is futile so they’re pressuring individual lawmakers to tuck in here and there provisions that they think will make the bill fairer for the industry.

The tone of nearly all the television ads on financial reform — now totaling $23 million in ad buys to-date — has been to take action or to tinker on the margins. Beyond the front group called “Stop Too Big To Fail” and a U.S. Chamber effort, few are calling for the legislation to be scrapped or blocked entirely, in part because Wall Street is too easy a target and no one wants to be seen as a big bank defender. The banks instead are using a large firm that helped corporations fight health care to show “grassroots” support for their case, as Think Progress revealed yesterday.But most of the efforts are under the radar. The American Bankers Association posted a cheerful link to the Republican alternative plan on its Web site today, saying it “moves in the direction ABA has been advocating” because of consumer protections. The GOP plan does not create a regulatory system for derivatives trading and also does not hold the big banks accountable for other failed banks.

ABA members wrote a letter to Senators last week opposing the language which passed out of the Senate Banking Committee, saying it is not balanced and unfairly targets Main Street, and calling for bipartisan talks to resume.

“There are, however, several provisions in the Committee passed bill that are unworkable and would impose heavy new regulatory requirements on traditional banks that had nothing to do with the financial crisis,” the bankers wrote in the letter, which you can read in full here.

Still, several lobbyists I spoke with aren’t even sure they’ll be successful since lawmakers fear any big changes will be portrayed as a weakening of the legislation. They agreed with predictions from Democrats that the final measure could pass with as many as 80 votes.

The Financial Services Roundtable, a trade association lobbying for 100 of largest financial services firms in the country, said the industry supports 80 percent of what’s being proposed. And the 20 percent is a disagreement between the methods the government should use to achieve regulatory goals the banks support.

Instead of spending money on television ads attempting to influence public opinion about the minor changes the roundtable wants, they are deploying lobbyists to speak one-on-one with members from both parties and with White House staffers.

On the spending side, there are more pro-reform ads than anything, with labor unions and the AARP airing supportive commercials.

The Independent Community Bankers of America lobbying group deployed 500 bankers sporting “I (heart) Community Banks” buttons to Capitol Hill offices in recent days to ask for changes to the bill. They also spent money on 60-second radio ads in the D.C. market and placed a print advertisement showing a banker in a top hat asking Treasury for a bailout.

Steve Verdier, an ICBA executive, told me in an interview their group want the legislation because they want to see Congress get tougher on big banks. “The Wall Street crowd is getting the same deal as before the bailouts and swiss cheese regulation,” he said.

ABA CEO Edward Yingling wrote an op-ed suggesting changes in the measure’s “Too Big To Fail” language but repeated how much the group supports reform overall. A spokesman declined to talk much about the group’s current stance since there is no final legislative language to evaluate.

Pro-reform groups have spent about $7.5 million to date on television ads, according to Evan Tracey of Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks the figures. The groups opposed to the legislation in its current form have spent about $6 million, and most of that is in the last month.

Tracey said that financial reform also has cropped up in another more than $10 million of individual candidate advertising across the country. The ads overwhelmingly have a common target — Wall Street as the bad guy. But he said the numbers pale in comparison to health care reform, in part because financial regulations are complicated and don’t lend themselves to 30-second spots as easily as other issues.