WASHINGTON — On the one-year anniversary of the Dodd-Frank Act, Democratic lawmakers and key financial regulators called on Congress to resist Republican efforts to cut funding to implement and enforce the law's sweeping new regulations.
Referring to proposals by House GOP, Democratic Rep. Barney Frank told the Senate Banking Committee on Thursday that even if the financial industry would prefer to have fewer regulations, it does not help them if the regulators lack the resources to provide industry players with clarity about what the law requires.
"You might think less regulation would be better, but clearly the worst of all worlds is to have regulations on the books and have regulatory authorities that aren't able to deal with them appropriately, that can't hire the right people and have the right information technology," Frank said during a rare appearance at the witness table.
Those views were echoed by Mary Schapiro, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and Gary Gensler, chairman of the Commodity Futures Exchange Commission. Both expressed concern about the adequacy of funding available to their agencies.
The reform law splits responsibility for overseeing the vast and previously unregulated derivatives market between the SEC and the CFTC. Since taking power this year, House Republicans have been putting pressure on the funding streams for both agencies.
Gensler said that the CFTC is now charged with regulating a market that is seven times the size of those that they have traditionally overseen.
"Without sufficient funds, there will be fewer cops on the beat," he said, adding that the CFTC will not have enough staff to answer questions from the public.
Schapiro said that the SEC needs substantially more money to deal with its new responsibilities. Under a House proposal, she said, $10 million would be cut from the SEC's information-technology budget.
"If the SEC does not receive additional resources, many of the issues highlighted by the financial crisis and which the Dodd-Frank Act seeks to fix will not be adequately addressed," she said in written testimony.
Schapiro argued that the industry itself will suffer for the SEC's lack of funding.
"The other area where we will fall behind is that we receive about 2,000 requests a year in the form of self-regulatory organization rule filings, requests for exemptions, no-action letters," she said. "Our capacity to keep up with that kind of volume on a declining budget will be severely impacted. And those are things industry really wants from us. They need that guidance and that -- that exemptive relief from time to time."
Although the Federal Reserve Board is self-funded, Chairman Ben Bernanke backed up the concerns of his fellow regulators, saying: "You need more people to write more regulations, carry out more regulations… That said, we want it done well."
Bernanke's comments came in response to tough questioning from Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who noted that Dodd-Frank will result in 4,000 new government jobs and asked, "Mr. Chairman, do we now have enough government bureaucrats to protect the financial system?"
Bernanke also faced questioning from Sen. Mark Kirk, R-IL, over whether Dodd-Frank has exacerbated the problem of "too-big-to-fail" banks.
The Fed chairman said that regulators have made progress in identifying large financial institutions that will be subject to tighter regulation. It is a positive sign that firms do not want to be designated as systemically important financial institutions, he said.
"One thing we've noticed is that banks and other institutions do not want to be SIFIs," Bernanke said. "They consider it to be this additional burden and oversight to constrain them. And if it was truly a mark of too big to fail, they might in fact prefer to be designated as SIFIs."
But Bernanke was more equivocal than former FDIC chairman Sheila Bair has been about whether the reform law ended the problem of too-big-to-fail.
"We're not there yet. I think we absolutely must get there," he said.
The hearing also featured tough questioning by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-NJ, regarding the regulators' reviews of mortgage servicers in the wake of allegations that the servicers used robo-signers instead of providing the careful review of foreclosure documents that the law requires.
Menendez asked Bernanke and acting Comptroller John Walsh whether they would commit to a public release of the results of their reviews on a bank-by-bank basis. Federal regulators had required several servicers to submit action plans to outline how they intended to resolve problems at their institutions.
"Will you release the mortgage servicers' action plan that respond to problems in the consent orders, and what about the engagement letters for the supposedly, 'independent consultants' who are hired by the banks themselves to perform the foreclosure reviews of the banks?" Menendez asked.
The New Jersey lawmaker and several House Democrats sent a letter to regulators Wednesday asking them to release the action plans along with all foreclosure reviews undertaken by bank consultants.
After the regulators essentially said they would look into it, Menedez became frustrated, vowing to keep up the pressure on the agencies and servicers.
"It is not acceptable to violate the law. It is not acceptable to do robo-signings, he said. "And I'm going to be like a dog on a bone here."
The hearing was also notable for Frank's appearance on the witness stand. Although the House and Senate sit within a few hundred yards of each other, the two chambers are normally two separate worlds.
But Frank testified as the Banking Committee's first witness (Dodd has since retired from the chamber), sparring with Shelby, one of the law's most prominent Republican critics.
Shelby used the hearing to defend congressional Republicans against charges that they sought to stymie reform following the financial crisis of 2008.
He said that Senate Republicans wanted to consolidate existing banking regulators and sought to regulate derivatives markets, among other reforms, but that Democrats refused to support their amendments to the legislation.
"There was strong agreement at that time that the current regulators had failed, and radical reform was needed," Shelby said.
After Shelby also cited the Obama administration's failure to address the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Frank said it wasn't just Democrats who were ducking the issue. He noted that House Republicans, while in the minority last year, had sought to deal with Fannie and Freddie as quickly as possible. Now in the majority, he said they have failed to act.
"Their ideology and reality are having a fight right now," Frank said.
Shelby, a former member of the House, defended his Senate record on reforming Fannie and Freddie, and added: "I don't know what's going on in the House, as he knows. It's been 25 years since I was there."