WASHINGTON - When Democrats used their majorities in the House and Senate last year to pass a financial overhaul largely along partisan lines, top Republicans were clear about what should happen next.
"It ought to be repealed," John Boehner, then the House minority leader, said in July 2010. "The financial reform bill is ill-conceived. I think it's going to make credit harder for the American people to get - clearly harder for businesses to get."
But what once was a rallying cry - full repeal of the Dodd-Frank Act - has become a faint echo. Far from trying to repeal the law in its entirety, Republicans are now targeting just specific parts of it.
The GOP's small-bore strategy is a reflection of two political realities. First, the financial reform law polls well with the general public. Second, whatever actions Republicans take at this point are more about shaping the debate than they are about lawmaking, since the Democrats still control the Senate and the White House, and it seems unlikely the law will be changed in any substantial ways before the next election.
"My opinion is that the only opportunity for repealing large parts of Dodd-Frank is going to be 2013," said Mark Calabria, a former Republican staffer on the Senate Banking Committee who is now director of financial regulation studies at the Cato Institute. "So in a sense their strategy is trying to leave as many options open as possible, while also maximizing attention on the issue."
In part, too, it is a reflection of a legislative reality. Once a major law is passed, getting it repealed in its entirety is very difficult. Republicans would have to replace it with something, or risk being labeled as unconcerned about the causes of the financial crisis. Making minor changes to a law is much easier.
During a recent news conference marking the law's anniversary, House Republicans were as scathing as ever in their assessment of Dodd-Frank. But they never uttered the r-word.
Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn., introduced a repeal bill in January, but it has attracted only nine co-sponsors. Boehner is not among them, and neither are any of his top deputies. The bill is languishing in a House subcommittee.
In the Senate, meanwhile, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the ranking Republican on the Banking Committee, Richard Shelby, have sponsored a repeal bill, but appear mostly to be focusing now on relatively small changes to the law.
House Republicans are seeking to use their majority to limit funding to certain agencies that play a key role in implementing Dodd-Frank. In addition, some bills to amend or repeal parts of the reform law have begun moving through the House. But none of these bills take aim at large parts of what the Democrats enacted.
For example, rather than repealing the section of Dodd-Frank that would move the trading of most derivatives onto exchanges, a measure recently passed by the House seeks to delay implementation of the new rules.
Another Republican proposal, passed in July by the House Financial Services Committee, would repeal a provision of Dodd-Frank that increases the potential that credit rating agencies will be held legally liable in securitization deals. For perspective, the provision amounts to a single sentence in the 2,300-page law.
Michael Barr, a University of Michigan law professor who helped draft Dodd-Frank as an assistant Treasury secretary during the Obama administration, said the Republicans don't have a full analysis of what caused the financial crisis and therefore don't have a coherent strategy on repealing the 2010 law.
"It's more a bumper-sticker kind of opposition," Barr said. "So I think it's all political theater, and not a serious effort at reform."
Perhaps the most consequential financial regulation issue before Congress this year involves Republican efforts to change the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, by replacing its single director with a five-member commission, for example.
On their own, these proposals would have little chance of becoming law before the 2012 election. But they allow the Republicans to lay down a marker with respect to one lever they do control: the ability to stymie the nomination of Richard Cordray as the CFPB's first director.
Still, Republicans are careful about how they frame this issue, forcefully rebutting Democratic charges that their proposed changes to the CFPB's structure are meant to weaken the independent consumer bureau.
"What we are asking for is not radical," Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said at a July 19 Banking Committee hearing. "Transparency and accountability are our goals, goals that should be shared by every policymaker interested in protecting consumers from abuses of the past."
This kind of rhetoric may reflect the fact that last year's financial reform law, and in particular the establishment of the CFPB, are popular with the public.
A July poll found that 74% of likely voters favor having a single agency with the mission of protecting consumers from deceptive financial practices. Seventy-one percent of the poll's respondents favored Dodd-Frank as a whole, including 60% of Republicans.
Although that poll was conducted by a Democratic firm, Lake Research Partners, other polls have also found popular support for the law. This is in contrast with the sharply partisan health care overhaul, where polling showed the public much more divided.
The political circumstances make it hard to forecast what path the Republicans will take if their party controls the White House and both houses of Congress in 2013. Congressional Republicans themselves may not even know.
For example, Sen. Bob Corker, who voted against Dodd-Frank, is one of the sponsors of legislation calling for its full repeal. But Corker, R-Tenn., was also involved on a bipartisan basis in drafting parts of earlier versions of Dodd-Frank, including the section of the law that establishes a way to liquidate large, failing financial firms in an orderly manner outside of the bankruptcy process. At a recent hearing, Corker seemed more interested in amending that provision than in repealing the entire law or even specific parts of it.
Corker asked a witness, "Would you be willing to work with us to tighten up orderly liquidation and to make sure that these large institutions aren't enjoying significant benefits because people believe that they're too big to fail, and to work with us on streamlining the bankruptcy code?"
Jim Johnson, a former Senate Republican staffer who is now the American Securitization Forum's managing director for public policy, said the piecemeal bills introduced by congressional Republicans this year do not reflect the entire GOP agenda on financial regulation.
Rather, he said, the bills underscore the parts of the law that are the most burdensome, as well as areas where the most concerns have been raised during the law's implementation.
By January 2013, that implementation process will have been under way for two and a half years, and companies will have continued to take steps to comply with the law.
"I think you'd be hard-pressed to make the case to just repeal the entirety of the law," said Johnson, adding that "even if a complete repeal were possible, it would have to be a repeal-and-replace with something that could garner bipartisan support."
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