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Legislative Updates: August 2011


Capitol Call

Members of Congress may differ a great deal in their states of origin, levels of education, and personalities, but few observers would disagree that they all seem to share a love of hyperbole and colloquialisms. A recent article in the Washington Post described a Democratic press conference at which Congressional leaders accused their Republican counterparts of "holding the American people hostage" no less than a dozen times. While "the American people" might admire both parties' adherence to their respective talking points, they might tire of the overheated rhetoric soon.

Unfortunately, July offered no respite from the rhetoric as Congress fiercely debated raising the debt limit ceiling. Despite most of the negotiations taking place behind closed doors, the debate took center stage in the press with most other topics being relegated to the back pages.

The old phrase "it's like herding cats" may have come to President Obama's mind, but he and Congressional leaders did eventually come to an agreement to raise the debt ceiling while also cutting spending by over $2 trillion over 10 years. A vote was finally taken at the end of the month and passed on a bipartisan basis, despite vehement opposition from several members on both sides, for entirely different reasons.

Other business still managed to take place, with the Senate Banking Committee holding a prominent hearing for discussion of the one-year anniversary of the Dodd-Frank Act. An apt colloquialism for the event might be "it is what it is" because the hearing didn't produce much news, with the Democrats, including House Financial Services Committee Ranking Member Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts), who was a special witness before the Committee, continuing to support the Act as an important step to reign in Wall Street. Republicans continued to be "rubbed the wrong way" by it because of their concerns about government overreach and the Act’s potential stifling of business growth.

The Senate Agriculture Committee, meanwhile, held a hearing on July 21 to consider the nomination of Mark Wetjen, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), to replace Commissioner Michael Dunn on the CFTC. His nomination was reported out of the Committee favorably on August 2 and is now awaiting further action by the full Senate. It is unknown whether any senators will put a hold on his nomination to address any issues they have with the CFTC. Commissioner Dunn will remain at the CFTC until Mr. Wetjen is confirmed.

CFTC Chairman Gary Gensler continued his frenetic pace in July, testifying at the Banking Committee Dodd-Frank hearing in the morning and starring in a House Agriculture Committee hearing on derivatives policy later that afternoon. He also chaired two CFTC open meetings, where the Commissioners voted on seven final rules that were published in the Federal Register. That is six more final rules than the SEC considered last month, with the Agency holding no open meetings and only finalizing one rule. If its website is any indication, however, the SEC is planning a busy fall, with dozens of rules on a wide variety of topics scheduled to be considered by the end of the year.

Any new crises will have to wait until September, because both the House and Senate quickly adjourned for their annual August recess mere hours after passing the debt ceiling bill. They fled Washington to go back to their districts in order to do some damage control, trying to convince their constituents that they did the right thing by voting for or against the bill and that they deserve another term in Congress. This may prove difficult, because with the rhetoric and hyperbole of Congress at the proverbial "fever pitch," it seems that many Americans would prefer "none of the above."

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