Between his last stint as governor and his new bid to reclaim the job, Tim Pawlenty landed a lucrative gig in Washington as a key spokesman for the nation’s largest banks at a time when the country was slowly climbing back from the Great Recession.
In 2012, when Pawlenty took the job of CEO for a Wall Street trade association called the Financial Services Roundtable, more than a quarter of all American homeowners were still “underwater,” meaning they owed more on their home than it was worth. Millions more had already lost jobs and homes in the four years since the financial panic of 2008, which economists and government investigators blamed on reckless mortgage lending and Wall Street’s unsound trading practices.
Pawlenty earned more than $10 million in a little over five years in the job, which he left in March. Now, the Republican faces scrutiny of his tenure at Financial Services Roundtable (FSR), which fought aggressively against financial regulations that the industry deems too burdensome. Pawlenty’s opponents in both parties are already making political fodder of his time in the job.
“[Pawlenty’s] lobbying will be yet another thing he’ll be on the defensive about in this race, and it’s clear Republicans have a much better chance without all that baggage,” said Jeff Johnson, Hennepin County commissioner and Pawlenty’s chief competitor for the GOP nomination.
Wall Street’s progressive critics, who battled Pawlenty in Washington for years, are eager to discuss issues like the safety of the nation’s financial system; lax privacy laws that led to fiascos like the Equifax breach of the personal information of millions of Americans; and Wall Street’s efforts to prevent customers from suing them.
“Across party and regional lines, most people think Wall Street has too much influence in Washington. And they think that because it does,” said Lisa Donner, executive director of Americans for Financial Reform, a consortium of labor unions, consumer groups, liberal think tanks and organizations like AARP.
Pawlenty declined an interview request to talk about his time in the FSR job. His spokesman, Sam Winter, released a statement that said the financial services industry is responsible for many good-paying jobs in Minnesota: “He was offered a good job, took it and he worked on critical issues like cybersecurity. The expertise he gained regarding the importance of a well-functioning financial system to both consumers and businesses will serve Minnesota well.”
It was a challenging gig when Pawlenty started in 2012, a little over a year after his first stint as governor ended and following his unsuccessful campaign for president. Wall Street banks were still suffering from the public backlash following the financial crisis. As recently as 2017, after years of efforts by Pawlenty and others to restore the reputation of Wall Street banks, 52 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of them, with just 31 percent favorable, according to a Bloomberg poll.
While the public remained cool to Wall Street, Pawlenty found allies among newly powerful Republicans in Congress, who were eager to dismantle the regulatory infrastructure erected by President Barack Obama and Democrats in 2010 via a law called Dodd-Frank.
The law created a new agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which sought to protect bank customers from predatory lending, overbilling and other cheating. Dodd-Frank also established a vast new regulatory system designed to prevent the irresponsible banking behavior that led up to the financial crisis.
Republicans — and a small army of industry lobbyists led by Pawlenty and others — said the new rules were a burden on the banks and consequently their customers. They charged that the regulatory regime was a drag on economic growth, citing the compliance costs on smaller banks especially, which hurt the Main Street businesses that borrow from them. They have been fighting the regulations ever since, with Pawlenty often on point.
“Pawlenty [was] highly effective and well regarded both in the industry and on Capitol Hill,” said Geoffrey Miller, director of the Center for Financial Institutions at New York University. Miller said he based that impression on regular conversations with bank executives.
Pawlenty was blessed with an advantage: The finance industry is traditionally one of the biggest spenders in both campaigns and lobbying, and the spending has a purpose: “They get access and the ability to convert that access into influence,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics.
Records show that during Pawlenty’s tenure, FSR spending on policy and legislative issues was always at least about $5 million, with a high of $6.5 million in 2013. Overall, the finance, insurance and real estate industries spent more than $500 million lobbying in 2017.
As far as many consumer advocates are concerned, groups like FSR have too much juice in Washington. They say the banks have been on the offense since Dodd-Frank passed, using nearly every weapon in their arsenal to protect profits at the expense of consumers and the safety of the financial system.
FSR launched a short-lived ad campaign against the CFPB before later suing the agency. FSR also sued Obama’s Department of Labor to undo what’s known as the “Fiduciary Rule,” a complex set of regulations that sought to ensure investment brokers were giving advice in the best interest of the client rather than themselves. An appeals court sided with FSR and its allies, citing “arbitrary and capricious exercises of administrative power.”
On Capitol Hill and in the executive branch, bank deregulation is once again ascendant.
FSR and its allies pushed for a bipartisan bill that passed the Senate recently that would allow some big banks to avoid the extra scrutiny that came from Dodd-Frank.
FSR and its allies in corporate America scored a big victory last year when they lobbied Congress to limit bank customers’ ability to band together in class-action lawsuits. Instead, consumers who allege they have been ripped off can be forced into mandatory arbitration often outlined in the tiny print on credit card and banking contracts.
The industry said arbitration is a cheaper way for consumers to get their money back than a class-action lawsuit, which can take years, with most of the money winding up in the hands of trial lawyers.
Donner of Americans for Financial Reform asserted that arbitration favors banks, starting with the fact that few people will pursue it if the money they lost — on say, an incorrect overdraft charge — is small compared to the time and expense of pursuing arbitration. But a small error in the bank’s favor repeated thousands of times adds up to real money, meaning profit.
“Many ripoffs are relatively small but happen to a lot of people, so absent a class-action remedy, there is no remedy,” Donner said. She cited cases like Wells Fargo setting up unauthorized accounts in customers’ names, after which the company sought to force the victims into arbitration to prevent a class-action suit.
Secret arbitration proceedings kept the Wells Fargo scandal concealed, Donner said. “It stayed hidden for years and a lot of people were harmed.”
In a recent interview on the public television program “Almanac,” Pawlenty explained his work: “The plumbing of the economy for every person, every day, and for every business every day, is the financial services system. And if it doesn’t work, things come to a halt, so you bet it touches every Minnesotan every day, and those are things that need to work.”
The financial services system is currently working for the banks. According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the nation’s banks made nearly $165 billion in profit last year.