Wall Street spent a record $2bn on lobbying and campaign contributions during the last US election cycle, according to a new survey, as big banks, hedge funds and other financial institutions stepped up efforts to reshape rules to their advantage.
The contributions paved the way for financial sector lobbying that has intensified with Donald Trump’s arrival in the White House as the president expresses his determination to relax financial market reforms contained in the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010.
Few on Wall Street expected Mr Trump to win, but they were more gratified by campaign promises of deregulation from the billionaire and Republican lawmakers than Hillary Clinton’s vows to tighten the rules on the financial sector.
Total spending during the 2015-16 election cycle was up about one-third from the previous round, according to a survey released on Wednesday by Americans for Financial Reform, a left-leaning coalition of consumer, labour and community groups.
Contributions of $1.1bn in the two years ended December 2016, combined with payments to lobbyists of $898m, meant that spending by Wall Street topped $2bn, about 25 per cent higher than the previous high in 2007-2008.
The election contributions went to both presidential campaigns and congressional races, with donors sticking to the common practice of spreading their largesse across both parties.
The sums do not include so-called “dark money”, or support to non-profits which do not have to disclose their donors. Nor do they include spending on research or policy staff who are not registered as lobbyists.
“The entire apparatus of government operates in an environment flooded with millions of dollars in Wall Street cash on a daily basis,” said Lisa Donner, executive director of AFR. She expects the sums to keep rising under the Trump administration.
“In some ways the financial industry has had to fight harder to protect its interests than before, because there is more public vigilance in areas that weren’t even battles before,” she said.
The financial sector is by far the largest source of campaign contributions to federal candidates and parties and ranks as the third-largest spender on lobbying, according to the survey, which was based on data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics. Insurers (excluding health insurers) were the biggest spenders during the last cycle, with $224m, followed by securities and investment ($192m) and real estate ($183m).
Three hedge funds — Renaissance Technologies, Paloma Partners and Elliott Management — ranked among the top five individual spenders. Wells Fargo spent most among the big banks, followed by Citigroup and Goldman Sachs.
Of the $688m in party-coded contributions by political action committees and individuals associated with finance, 55 per cent went to Republicans and 45 per cent to Democrats. Four of the top five recipients were Republicans, led by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida ($8.69m) and Ted Cruz of Texas ($5.48m), both of whom ran for president. The lone Democrat was Chuck Schumer ($5.34m), from New York.
Ms Donner noted that there were few outright victories for Wall Street in recent years, as lobbyists sought to roll back Dodd-Frank reforms. One example was a battle in December 2014 which allowed the big banks to continue to fund derivatives trades using federally-insured deposits.
But she said that much of the lobbying had succeeded in “slowing or weakening” proposed reforms. Rules on curbing incentive pay, for example, have yet to see the light of day, even though such measures appear to have broad support among voters.
“That is really what the money story is about; we end up with outcomes that are not what people voted for,” said Ms Donner.
“We are not having a policy debate on a free and even playing field, but one suffused with cash from narrow financial industry interests.”
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