Washington is rigged to work for those who can hire an army of lobbyists and an army of lawyers to get special deals. It isn't working for small businesses and middle class families. That has to change.
I've gone toe-to-toe with the biggest, most powerful lobbyists in Washington - and I haven't backed down. I called out the big banks for what they were doing to working families. Along with others, I fought hard to create a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that would level the playing field and prevent consumers from getting caught up in the tricks and traps of complicated credit cards and mortgage agreements.
People all across this Commonwealth and this country work hard. They aren't looking for a special deal or a short cut. They just want a fair shake, a level playing field so they have a chance to succeed.
It has been more than three years since the greatest financial crisis in three generations. It is past time that we stop talking about accountability and start demanding it from those who broke the system. Fighting for the middle class means fighting for across-the-board, consistent accountability - accountability for anyone who breaks the law, no matter where they work or who their friends are.
With all the clout that Wall Street and its lobbyists have, real accountability won't be easy, but the first steps are pretty obvious:
First, we need to demand that the Justice Department, our state Attorneys General, and federal regulators do more to push back on the big banks and their lobbyists. We need to demand that they investigate those whose illegal actions have broken the economy and, when the evidence warrants it, that they bring public prosecutions.
Second, we need to stop the late night budget tricks and other maneuvers that are designed to weaken agencies that enforce the laws. We should put real cops on the financial beat in the Commodities Futures Trading Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission, cops with the resources they need to patrol for fraud and sustain tough prosecutions.
I fought for a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and when it passed and I headed to Washington to set it up, I committed myself to two goals. I was determined to put in place the building blocks of an agency that would stand up for middle class families, and I was also determined that this agency would help level the regulatory playing field between big financial institutions and small ones. I believed that if this agency became another agency that took its cues from the thundering herds of lobbyists for large financial institutions, we might as well pack up and go home.
One of my first priorities was to connect personally with small bankers in each of our 50 states. Day in and day out, I met with the hard-working people who run community banks and credit unions. Over the course of nearly a year, I met with hundreds of people who are on the front lines in keeping a small financial institution running. Those meetings were enormously valuable. Working closely with community bankers, the agency took the first steps to level the playing field by following one basic idea: Simplify the rules. With simple rules, we could push down the costs of compliance.
This is precisely what Washington needs to do more often. We need to reduce complexity and cut compliance costs. We need to make changes that level the playing field between big corporations and small businesses.
I believe that clearer, simpler regulation - regulation that is designed to work for small businesses and consumers--can help make markets work better. The financial crisis showed us what happens when regulations aren't enforced and giant Wall Street businesses have too little oversight. Deregulation certainly didn't help the small banks and credit unions that got swept up in that mess. But we also can't keep layering on one regulation after another, adding more and more complexity, without assessing the effects on families and small businesses.
We need a new approach that includes a serious assessment of the compliance cost of current regulations and whether adequate protection for consumers can be accomplished using cheaper, simpler approaches, or, in specific cases, if the regulations are so heavily layered on top of each other, that some can be cut altogether.
Washington is rigged to work for those with an army of lawyers and an army of lobbyists. I've seen the thundering herds of lobbyists fill the halls of Congress first-hand, and I can tell you that Washington works for them and the big corporations and banks they represent, but too often it doesn't work for middle class families. That's got to change. We need
- serious campaign finance reform so that elected officials are truly representatives of the people
- to stop the revolving door between Congress and lobbying firms, beginning with a lifetime ban on members of Congress from becoming lobbyists, stronger restrictions to stop the revolving door from Congressional staffer to industry representative, and more serious restrictions on lobbyists working in Congress
- to reform the filibuster, beginning with a requirement that anyone who wants to stop the people's business must go out onto the Senate floor and actually filibuster, live and in person, so that the American people see precisely who is creating gridlock, and
- to support a strong Government Accountability Office, an independent voice to prevent fraud and to stop wasteful practices.
We all know the tax code is unfair and far too complicated. The statutory corporate tax rate is 35%, but it seems like every few months there's a new report on big corporations working the system. One recent report showed that, of the big corporations in the S&P 500, 115 paid less than 20% in taxes. Another report claimed that, of 280 of the biggest corporations in the country, 78 paid nothing in taxes during one of the last three years. How is this possible? An army of lobbyists helps create tax loopholes, and an army of lawyers helps these companies take advantage of them - and it's all perfectly legal. What does that mean for the rest of us? Small businesses are at a competitive disadvantage.
We need serious tax reform to make the tax code fairer and simpler. The most profitable corporations should have to pay their fair share. The tax code should not be designed to encourage companies and jobs to go overseas. And those who already have made it big have a responsibility to pay a little bit forward - so the next kid coming along has a chance to make it too.
Washington is wired to work for the big guys, the ones who can hire armies of lobbyists and lawyers. It is essential that we find ways to counteract the effects of Citizens United, the Supreme Court case that authorized the big corporations who have been openly gaming the system in Washington to gain an even bigger advantage by funding - often anonymously - political advertisements. This decision was a corporate end-run around bipartisan campaign finance reform.
We need to put Washington on the side of middle class families again. Fixing the system is going to take better disclosure rules, some kind of public funding system for elections, serious action to reverse Citizens United, and most importantly, people across the Commonwealth and the country pushing for a democracy in which everyone's voice is heard.