NEW YORK – The 10 banks that received the most bailout aid during the financial crisis spent over $16 million on lobbying efforts in the first half of 2010, as the debate over financial regulatory reform reached its height.
Disclosure reports show that the banks that got the most government help in late 2008 and early 2009 also invested the most to influence members of Congress, the White House, the Federal Reserve, Treasury Department and a long list of federal agencies as new rules were enacted governing Wall Street and the nation's financial system.
"I'm not shocked that they spent that much money because I saw them every day," said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director at U.S. Public Interest Research Group, who said more than 2,000 lobbyists worked on the financial reform bill.
The sweeping law signed by President Barack Obama in July topped 2,300 pages, and outlined broad rules for issues ranging from derivatives trading to the fees merchants are charged for processing credit and debit card transactions. It also covered the creation of a consumer financial protection bureau. Banks are continuing efforts to try to shape many of the new rules that are still being finalized.
The $16.32 billion spent in the first half of 2010 was 26 percent higher than the combined $12.94 billion they spent in the first half of 2009.
In prior years, the spending crept up at a much slower pace: 2009's total was about 2 percent higher than the nearly $12.7 billion spent in the first half of 2008. And that was only 3.7 percent above the $12.25 million spent in the first half of 2007.
Leading the pack this year was JPMorgan Chase & Co., which spent $1.52 million on lobbying in the second quarter, on top of $1.51 million in the first quarter of 2010, for a total of $3.03 million, according to disclosure reports filed with the House of Representatives clerk's office.
Citigroup Inc., the largest bank recipient of government funds during the crisis in late 2008 and early 2009, was second. The New York-based bank spend $1.47 million on lobbyists in the second quarter, after spending $1.31 million in the first quarter for a total of $2.78 million.
And Wall Street titan Goldman Sachs Group Inc. was third, with $1.58 million spent in the second quarter, on top of $1.19 million in the first quarter of 2010.
All three banks declined to comment on their lobbying spending, which went toward hiring advocates to discuss the legislation with lawmakers and regulators. Lobbying figures do not include any campaign contributions that banks or their employees might also have made.
Mierzwinski said the big win for consumers was the financial protection bureau, which banks tried to remove from the law. The financial industry was in a weakened position during the debate, however, because of public anger over the economy's collapse and publicity over issues like Wall Street bonuses. Nevertheless, banks were rewarded for their efforts, he said. "They did manage to make changes."
Bank of America Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. both also spent more than $2 million in the first half of the year. Spending far less were PNC Bank, US Bancorp, Capital One Financial Corp. and Regions Financial Corp. The American Bankers Association, the main trade group for the industry, also lobbied heavily, spending $4.2 million in the first half of 2010.
Consumer advocacy groups had their own lobbyists working the Capitol's halls during the finance reform debate as well, but their spending was dwarfed by the banks — a total of $792,000 in the first half of the year for four of the top organizations. The Center for Responsible Lending topped the list, with $335,000 spent in the first six months of the year. U.S. PIRG tallied $227,000. The Consumers Union listed $150,000 and The Consumer Federation of America spent $80,000.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the heavy spending in part reflects the number of people needed to discuss issues with 535 members of Congress. One sentence in a law regulating the financial markets can have a big impact on a company's profit, she noted, and the industry made sure they had experts on hand to discuss every aspect with lawmakers.
"We're talking billions," Sloan said. "So the lobbying money is the most effective money you'll spend."
"It's not that I don't think that many would have preferred a different outcome," she added. "But I doubt that any of those banks didn't think it was worth it to have those lobbyists."