Our Current Predicament

I’ve spent almost no time this week discussing the Financial Choice Act, which was just passed by the House and is on its way to the Senate. This bill is an overhaul of Dodd-Frank, which was itself an overhaul of our regulatory system after the 2008 financial crisis. (We seem to love overhauls in this country.)

And there is a lot to discuss. The Durbin amendment is on the chopping block, as is the Volcker rule. The Consumer Financial Protections Bureau may also be on the way out, which is the same agency that uncovered the widespread Wells Fargo fraud last year. There is an enormous amount of detail and potential impact to dissect here — almost certainly more than any of us can handle, myself included.

Under normal circumstances, the American public would do its best to churn through this in all the usual channels and eventually settle to some kind of equilibrium. Then opinion polls, town halls, letters, and phone calls could inform legislators what people actually think of their actions, and they could adjust their behavior accordingly. That system is not perfect, by an means. No one is arguing that. But problems aside, it has worked at least okay for the past half-century or so.

But these are not normal circumstances. Even by the lowest possible standard, does anyone think the Financial Choice Act is being thoughtfully considered by the American people right now? Personally, I would not trust any opinion polls that come out on this issue, seeing as the public at large seems a little bit distracted at the moment. And therein lies the problem.

The natural gears of democratic interaction are not turning right now, but that doesn’t mean everybody else is waiting patiently on the sidelines. Agencies are still operating. The legislature is writing bills. The courts are handing down decisions. But very little of that is percolating through the American public in the usual fashion.

It’s not possible for me to actually weigh the significance of this lapse in public review. Just breaking down the three items listed above would be a decent-sized project, one that I skipped intentionally. While I have some general opinions on the Durbin Amendment, the Volcker Rule, and the Consumer Financial Protections Bureau, I haven’t done the necessary homework to confidently share them.

But that’s only a part of one bill being passed by one chamber of one branch of our government. And it’s not even clear what pieces will or will not eventually be signed into law. It’s a drop in the bucket in comparison to the full range of activities being carried out. But it it’s almost impossible to keep track of any individual through-line when public attention is glued to monolithic coverage of impropriety in the executive.

Ultimately, I just don’t know how to measure or guess at the effects of this (hopefully temporary) gap in public scrutiny. Maybe someone else can do a more thorough job on that, looking at how other developed nations have fared during episodes like this. (Brazil? South Korea? We’re looking at you.) But if, like me, you believe in the laws of unintended consequences, there’s plenty of reason for concern.

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