Focus is on Main St. as firms fight Wall St.

Associated Press and Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Recognizing that many people see them as villains, the financial industry and big business groups working to stop key elements of President Barack Obama’s financial overhaul are taking a new tack.

They’re focusing on how the president’s proposals to rein in Wall Street titans could ensnare virtually any business, including the mom-and-pop operations that most Americans deal with every day.

It’s a tried-and-true strategy in Washington, akin to using the most sympathetic figures in a debate as human shields. Don’t shoot at us, the argument seems to go, or you’ll hit the people you really care about.

Creating a new agency to protect consumers from harmful financial products and practices wouldn’t just affect financial firms, but ‘even your local florist or hardware store,’ says a radio ad released Monday by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which recently launched a Web site to kill the proposed office.

It’s just one tactic the industry is using to fight Obama’s financial overhaul proposals, but it helps explain why the effort promised by the president and top Democrats has faded into the background. Obama sought to revive his regulatory proposals in a speech Monday on Wall Street.

The initiative has been overtaken by politically difficult debates over health care and climate change on Capitol Hill, complicated by turf battles among the maze of agencies that would be affected, and – perhaps most significantly – fought relentlessly by a determined financial services lobby with a major assist from big business groups.

They say they share Obama’s desire to protect consumers and revamp an outdated financial system whose vulnerabilities were laid painfully bare by last year’s meltdown, but argue that many of the Democrats’ ideas for doing so would lead to over-regulation, additional costs for consumers and a stifling of legitimate business practices.

‘The administration and Congress are trying to go after Wall Street, but what’s actually happening is they’re creating rules that are hurting Main Street,’ said Thomas Quaadman at the Chamber’s Center for Capital Markets. ‘If we’re talking about a financial crisis that needs to be addressed, we don’t disagree with that, but when you start talking about additional industries that have nothing to do with the financial services industry, why do they need to be part of that additional regulation?’

The approach extends to other elements of Obama’s agenda. An effort to write new rules to govern the little-regulated and mind-bogglingly complex transactions that helped spur last year’s meltdown has run into opposition from industries far outside the financial sector – from food companies to airlines – that routinely use so-called derivatives in their businesses.

That’s made it more difficult for lawmakers to deal with what many once believed would be a slam-dunk part of the financial overhaul.

And when Obama tried to tackle the tricky question of how to give federal regulators better tools to police companies that extend consumers credit, it ran afoul of such unlikely players as Target Corp. and Harley-Davidson Inc.

‘The last thing you want to do is to pass major reform and then have the law of unintended consequences. When different players all weigh in, that has an impact on members of Congress,’ said Scott Talbott, a lobbyist at the Financial Services Roundtable.

Talbott said his industry has worked hard to rebuild and help push reforms following last year’s debacle. But while companies back better consumer safeguards, he said, they oppose creating the new consumer agency.

The president sought to shift the initiative to the forefront with his speech, in which he scolded financial players for opposing tighter regulations. But while proponents of tightening financial rules are still hopeful legislation can pass by year’s end, the effort faces long odds.

It’s taken nine months for Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the House Financial Services Committee chairman, to get to a drafting session for the first piece of the financial overhaul: the measure creating the consumer agency, due to be considered by his panel next month.

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., the Senate Banking Committee chairman, is working on one catchall financial overhaul bill, but it’s a much heavier lift in that chamber, where moderate Democrats join Republicans in taking a more business-friendly approach that is wary of government intervention.

Big banks and securities firms have spent nearly $90 million lobbying Congress so far this year, according to public disclosures filed on Capitol Hill and compiled by the watchdog Center for Responsive Politics – and that doesn’t count the substantial amounts that individual corporations have shelled out.

The Chamber of Commerce has spent more than $26 million so far this year lobbying on issues, including the financial overhaul.

‘There’s been a backlash from all segments of the financial services industry and from the Chamber of Commerce, and what’s happened is that a very powerful alliance of businesses has made it clear that they’re not going to compromise, that they’re going to try and kill the centerpiece of the president’s reform agenda,’ said Travis Plunkett of the Consumer Federation of America.