After 20 years of failed efforts, the House on Wednesday passed by the thinnest of margins legislation to lift Depression-era barriers separating banking, securities and insurance. The White House is threatening a veto.
The 214-213 tally came after a nail-biting few minutes in which several lawmakers switched their votes and the total seesawed between approval and rejection. Some lawmakers paced the floor of the chamber, holding red and green electronic voting cards, one in each hand.Similar legislation in the Senate has not been acted upon. And the narrow vote in the House by which the bill passed makes its prospects unclear.
Rep. Merrill Cook, R-Utah, termed the passage of the bill "quite an achievement."
Cook, who voted in favor of the legislation, said the best thing about the bill is it allows consumers one-stop shopping for financial services, from stocks, bonds and insurance to home and auto loans.
"We'll have financial services determined by law rather than by regulators and court rulings," said Cook.
He said the Treasury Department estimates the bill could save consumers as much as $15 billion a year in lower insurance premiums, bank fees and smaller commission charges on securities transactions.
Republican leaders who had thrown their prestige behind the bill only to have an embarrassing retreat forced on them six weeks ago were exulting after the vote.
Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, one of the GOP leaders, called it "the most significant reform of our nation's financial services laws in over 60 years."
"There goes the do-nothing Congress," asserted House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston, R-La.
The far-reaching measure has been bitterly opposed by consumer activists, including Ralph Nader, most of the banking industry and the Clinton administration, which contends it would favor big bank-holding companies at the expense of small banks.
The complex legislation spurred a barrage of lobbying by the financial industry in recent months and divided top federal regulators, the industry and each of the political parties. The banking industry on one side and the securities and insurance industries on the other have been pouring millions into the campaign coffers of key lawmakers.
Consumers Union said after the vote the package was a mixed blessing for the nation's consumers. While it requires banks to tell customers when financial products aren't federally insured or when they involve potential risk of loss, the bill "falls short" of providing full consumer protection, said Mary Griffin, an attorney with the group.
But proponents held out the promise of a globally competitive U.S. financial industry, with consumers benefiting from one-stop "supermarkets" catering to all their financial needs. The new structures would stretch "from the cradle to the wedding to retirement," said Rep. Rick Lazio, R-N.Y.