Taking aim at Wall Street and the U.S. central bank, an important House committee voted Thursday to assess fees on large financial firms to pay for the failure of their peers and to require a sweeping congressional audit of the secretive Federal Reserve.
The votes were the final brush strokes to the House Financial Services Committee's response to last year's banking meltdown.
In a surprise, however, Democratic committee Chairman Barney Frank delayed final action on a long-awaited regulatory overhaul bill until after next Thursday's Thanksgiving national holiday. Frank said members of the Congressional Black Caucus requested the delay because they were "troubled by a lack of response to the economic situation."
Lawmakers have been pressing the Obama administration to take further steps to help the unemployed and create more jobs. "This is a critical issue for my constituents," said committee Democrat Maxine Waters, a member of the black caucus.
The votes on fees and on the Fed audit came despite objections from the Obama administration. They illustrated the strong sentiment in Congress to curb the central bank's power and assure voters that taxpayers will not lose money in future Wall Street failures.
If Frank can win final passage in his committee in two weeks, the House could vote on the full overhaul next month.
The Senate Banking Committee began its own rewrite of the rules that govern Wall Street on Thursday, but the committee's top Republican panned the bill proposed by its chairman, Democrat Christopher Dodd.
From the sidelines, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner prodded Congress to move quickly on the measures.
In seeking to have large firms pay upfront fees to dismantle failing nonbank financial institutions, the House committee rejected warnings from the Obama administration and objections from big Wall Street companies.
The money would be paid into a $150 billion "dissolution fund" by firms with assets of more than $50 billion. Hedge funds with assets of more than $10 billion also would have to pay. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. would use the fund to unravel and break up collapsing nonbank financial firms. The FDIC, formed to protect individuals' deposits in banks, also could borrow an extra $50 billion, provided Congress approved.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Wall Street prefer that the fee be assessed after a failed firm has been dismantled. Such a step, however, could require upfront payment by taxpayers.
"This amendment will end taxpayer financed bailouts, eliminate `too big to fail' (firms) and will create a system going forward where we force the big-bank, Wall Street fat cats to pay any mess they make," said Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez.
On auditing the Fed, the committee adopted a plan by Republican Rep. Ron Paul that had the support of a bipartisan roster of more than 300 members of Congress. It would give the Government Accountability Office the authority to audit the entirety of the Fed's balance sheet, credit facilities and all securities purchase programs. Critics, led by Frank and Democratic Rep. Melvin Watt, argued that Paul's proposal was too intrusive and could indirectly lead to higher interest rates. They proposed a more limited audit.
"If we open all of the discussions, the deliberations, the transactional gives and takes, what we will do is scare off capital because other governments will not deal with our Fed," Watt said.
Paul, who ran a long-shot campaign for president last year, argued Watt's more limited proposal would exclude much of the Fed's work from scrutiny.
"There is no reason in the world why this country and our people can't know eventually about what's going on in the Federal Reserve," Paul said.
In the Senate, Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, top Republican on the Senate's banking panel, sharply criticized Dodd's proposed legislation.
"It significantly expands the federal government's ability to bail out not only banks, but any large, politically connected company," Shelby said. Dodd could still pass the bill with Democratic votes in his committee but would find it far more difficult to get the needed votes in the full Senate without some Republican backing.
Dodd argued that a year after the near collapse of the financial system, it was now time to correct the government's oversight.
"As we sit here today, with gaping holes in our regulatory structure, we cannot tell our constituents that we're ready to prevent another shock," he said.