Next Senate Banking Chairman Sets Low-Income and Climate Priorities

Senator Sherrod Brown, the next chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, proposed a sweeping agenda on Tuesday, saying he would seek to improve housing and banking services for low-income Americans, fight global warming and foster racial equality when Democrats control both chambers of Congress and the White House.

The committee, which oversees housing and transportation matters as well as banks and financial regulators, has been too deferential to the financial services industry, Mr. Brown, from Ohio, said in a call with journalists.

“Wall Street doesn’t get to run this entire economy,” he said.

Mr. Brown added that he wanted to investigate the relationship among stock prices, executive compensation and workers’ wages, taking on a corporate business model that “treats workers as expendable.”

“We’re going to put the dignity of work at the center of everything we do,” he said.

Although he said he looked forward to working with Republican colleagues like Senator Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, who is set to be the committee’s ranking member, Mr. Brown also said he wanted to erase some of the committee’s earlier attitudes.

“This committee has flat-out pretended that climate change doesn’t exist,” he said. “Housing was a word left out of this committee for too long, and it won’t be left out anymore.”

In a statement on Tuesday, Mr. Toomey’s office said he “echoes the sentiment from Senator Brown about the potential for bipartisan work at the Senate Banking Committee,” adding that Mr. Toomey “will speak up in defense of free enterprise and look to advance a pro-growth agenda that expands economic opportunity for all Americans.”

It’s not clear how much of the wide-ranging agenda — which includes replacing public buses with zero-emission vehicles and expanding housing subsidies — Mr. Brown will be able to put in place. Democrats’ control of the Senate will be razor thin, and Republicans could, as Mr. Brown did when his party was in the minority, try to scuttle any changes.

But the proposals are a major shift for a committee that in Republican hands focused largely on loosening financial regulations. Democrats would reverse new rules for banks and other financial firms and seek to institute policies that Republicans have long resisted, including a public-banking option that would allow the poorest Americans to avoid high fees for simple banking services, Mr. Brown said.

He also said he wanted to see holdovers from the Trump administration purged from regulatory agencies. “We need to push aside those political people, either fire them or push them into positions of more or less irrelevance,” Mr. Brown said.

One of his targets is the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Kathleen Kraninger, whom Mr. Brown said he had advised during a phone call to resign. His staff, he said, is also compiling a list of rules made final by Trump appointees, including Ms. Kraninger, so Democrats could try to scrap them using the Congressional Review Act, a law that lets Congress vote to reverse regulators’ actions.

Representatives of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau had no immediate comment.

Mr. Brown, who was elected to his third term in 2018, said the committee’s first order of business would be to use congressional action to keep landlords from evicting people who could not pay their rent because of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on their finances. He said Democrats wanted to provide additional pandemic relief and work quickly to confirm President-elect Joseph R. Biden’s nominees — all while an impeachment trial of President Trump could be playing out.

In the longer term, Mr. Brown said, he wants to get the Federal Reserve to set up bank accounts for members of the public who don’t have accounts at commercial banks. The so-called public option would allow users to cash paychecks and receive government benefits, such as refunds from a new child tax credit that he and other Senate Democrats have proposed.

Big banks have long resisted the idea of a public alternative to their services and have explored ways to pre-empt the creation of such a system. Early last year, for example, JPMorgan Chase officials discussed placing the company’s banking services like A.T.M.s in some post offices, although the plan was abandoned when the pandemic hit. Bank lobbyists have argued that the responsibilities of financial services would overwhelm public institutions like the Postal Service and that banks can carry out the duties more efficiently themselves.

But millions of people still do not have access to any kind of bank account, and Mr. Brown said the fees they paid for check-cashing services and payday loans were the kinds of expenses that kept them at the lowest levels of America’s economic strata.

To help remove that burden, Mr. Brown called for a 36 percent cap on interest rates for payday loans. At the moment, rate caps vary by state.

Mr. Brown has already raised some of his agenda with his Republican colleagues. He said he and Mr. Toomey had taken advantage of an unexpected opportunity to discuss the committee’s future: They put their heads together last Wednesday, while both were locked for hours in a secure location as rioters stormed the Capitol.

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