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Commentary By Nicole Gelinas

The Recovery Prevention Act of 2010

Once President Obama signs the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill into law, the topic of how to fix Wall Street will no longer resonate in the Beltway. Financial regulation will have come and gone without either party realizing that getting this issue wrong isn’t a disaster for the future. A bad law -- as this one will be -- will add to the disaster now, further stalling job creation and crippling the administration’s economic agenda.

Obama is likely to sign the 2,315-page Dodd-Frank bill next week, after the Senate follows the House’s pre-holiday vote. Congress and the president seem ready to be done with the issue.

Financial regulation has spent two years as a political orphan -- needy, but without a consistent champion. The White House and congressional Republicans have competed on how loudly each side could criticize bankers and associate these “fat cats” with the opposition party.

The partisan noise has distracted the public from the fact that both parties are terrified of upsetting the high-finance status quo.

For 25 years, Washington has done everything in its power to subsidize Americans’ profligate borrowing habits. Debt became the fuel for economic growth. Washington subsidized the financial industry’s borrowing through implicit guarantees against loss.

The feds first started rescuing creditors to “too big to fail” banks in 1984. Since then, it’s become clear to lenders -- Wall Street’s global bondholders and trading counterparties -- that the government would save them anytime a large financial firm foundered.

Indemnified against losses, bondholders could lend nearly infinitely to Wall Street. Wall Street found creative ways to lend that money right back to the public, through mortgage brokers and credit card marketers.

Some exceptions exist. In September 2008, the feds refused to rescue Lehman Brothers’ lenders. But the exceptions have only proven the rule. Today, conventional Washington wisdom is that letting Lehman fail was a catastrophe.

The Dodd-Frank bill is a monument to the status quo. Despite promises that the bill will end bailouts, it enshrines bailouts into law.

It provides for an “orderly liquidation authority,” for example, which allows “systemically important” financial firms to escape bankruptcy and to escape, too, consistent losses for their creditors. It also sets up a fast-track procedure through which the White House can ask Congress for guarantees for Wall Street’s lenders in a future crisis.

In effect, the government is saying to Wall Street’s lenders: Carry on as you did before 2008.

Ordinary Americans, though, understand that they can’t go on as before. Since 2008, they’ve started paying their debt back.

The process is painful. As Americans borrow less, they spend less and pay less for houses.

But as Americans pare back their debt, the economy will begin to heal permanently. As house prices fall, for example, because less borrowed money exists to send them higher, Americans will have more money left over after paying the mortgage.

They can invest that money in the stock market for retirement. Those funds, in turn, will go to entrepreneurs who create jobs outside of the financial industry.

The Dodd-Frank bill would pervert this healthy process. It would pit Washington’s too-big-to-fail subsidies and Wall Street’s creativity against Americans who are trying to do the right thing for themselves and the country.

This face-off is terrible for our recovery. Financial firms should be supporting the economy as it goes through a traumatic but vital transition. Banks and investment firms should help people to borrow less and save and invest more. Instead, Washington is encouraging financiers to subvert people’s best instincts.

As long as Wall Street and Washington fend off good American intuition, the economy will remain stuck in a stalemate. The jobless will grow wearier, too, of the party in power.

This piece originally appeared in Washington Examiner

This piece originally appeared in Washington Examiner