Bank of America increased lobbying toward end of 2009

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 22, 2010 

WASHINGTON — With $45 billion in taxpayer money finally repaid and a wave of new regulations building, Bank of America slowly intensified its influence peddling in Congress toward the end of 2009.

In all, Bank of America spent $3.6 million last year to lobby Washington lawmakers on a wide range of issues, from credit card reform to a proposed consumer financial protection agency. It wanted a say on how much its leaders should be paid, on the bank's role in preventing foreclosures, on bankruptcy, on student loans and on tricky financial instruments such as over-the-counter derivatives.

Last year's lobbying bill was a 13 percent drop from the $4.1 million it spent in 2008. Bank of America cut back on its lobbying spending the first half of 2009 from the previous year in part because of the recession, the bank said last summer. It also hired far fewer outside firms.

At the time the bank also was still part-owned by federal taxpayers through the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Bank of America repaid its TARP money in early December.

Other banks also decreased or held steady in their spending. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. reduced its lobbying costs to $2.8 million in 2009 from $3.3 million in 2008, a 15 percent decline. Citigroup Inc. spent $5.5 million, unchanged from 2008, according to a report from Bloomberg.

Even though Bank of America spent less last year, it began pouring in more money as the year went on. A third of its spending came in the fourth quarter.

After a lull in early 2009 on the financial reform front, suddenly there was plenty of work. Bank of America spokeswoman Shirley Norton said the bank's issues increased in late 2009, needing analysis and evaluation.

"Our focus remains trying to be constructive in helping ensure that regulatory reform is thoughtfully done and fosters sound and competitive banking," Norton said in an e-mail.

The House of Representatives passed a major financial reform bill last fall, anchored by a proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency, authored in part by U.S. Reps. Mel Watt of Charlotte and Brad Miller of Raleigh.

It was overwhelmingly opposed by major banks and Republicans.

Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank and other Democrats on the committee might have been visited by bank lobbyists as the committee was shaping reform, but the visits mattered little, said Steve Adamske, Frank's spokesman.

"I think (bank lobbyists) have very little influence over what's going on," Adamske said.

Still, major banks made significant headway in slowing down financial reform, said Robert Litan, an economist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"When this crisis began and when Obama took office, the financial reform train looked like it was speeding down the tracks," Litan said. "And it has clearly slowed down since."

The reduced speed came in part thanks to a partial economic recovery, Litan said, and partly because banks themselves have begun to heal.

"The bank lobbying didn't hurt," he said.

Miller, a liberal Democrat who routinely slams big banks, said he rarely saw Bank of America's main lobbyist, John Collingwood, in his office.

"Their lobbyist has been in my office maybe once, and he may have talked to my staff on issues," Miller said. "I don't have an unpleasant personal relationship, but I think they see me as a lost soul."

Bank of America's lobbyists routinely drop in to talk with Watt, the Democratic congressman said.

"They're not hesitant about calling and being honest and straight-up and telling me what the issues are," Watt said. In return, he added, he tells them when he agrees and when he disagrees.

When, during an investigation of the Merrill Lynch-Bank of America deal, lawmakers raised questions that Watt thought teetered too closely to telling the bank how to hire its officers, he passed on the bank's concerns to his peers.

But when Bank of America said they didn't like the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency, Watt told them he disagreed.

"I don't think of it as necessarily lobbying, it's constituent service," Watt said. His district includes Bank of America's headquarters.

U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry, the state's third member and only Republican on the House Financial Services Committee, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Bank of America continues to face challenges in Washington.

The House's financial reform package now goes before the Senate, and Obama has said that dropping the consumer protection agency from the bill would be a deal-breaker.

Also, U.S. Sens. John McCain and Maria Cantwell have proposed reviving the Glass-Steagall Act that would force the split of Merrill Lynch's investment business from Bank of America. Earlier this week, Obama proposed making banks more secure by requiring them to give up their stakes in hedge funds and private equity funds and imposing new limits on proprietary trading.

There are also proposed taxes on executive compensation, and consumer advocates still want reforms on foreclosures.

Norton, the bank's spokeswoman, said Bank of America believes "there is need for substantial regulatory reform to ensure that unregulated activities not be allowed to contribute to future crises, as has occurred in the past few years."

Litan, the economist, expects a lot more lobbying from the banks this year. "You'd expect there to be more lobbying expenditure when things get hot," he said. "Things are hot."

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