Clinton Vs. Clinton (And Obama) On Deregulation

With little success on the economic front, President Barack Obama in 2012 is embracing much of his message on the economy from 2008. And from that playbook, he has two basic strategies.

One is to blame the supposed deregulation policies of the Bush administration that Obama and his surrogates endlessly say “got us into this mess.” And the second is to hug former rivals Bill and Hillary Clinton as hard as he can and harken back to the prosperity and economic growth of the 1990s.

But there is just one problem with this theme. The Obama campaign’s twin messages of bashing deregulation and embracing the Clinton years are inherently contradictory. Despite yesterday’s much-hyped new pro-Obama ad in which Clinton warns that a Mitt Romney president would “go back to deregulation,” on financial regulation, Bill Clinton as president was actually more of a deregulator than Bush.

Clinton pushed for and signed the very deregulatory measures that have been blamed (wrongly) for causing the financial crisis of 2008. What’s more, Clinton administration officials have credited these policies for contributing to the ‘90s economic boom — the very “shared prosperity” that Obama says he wants to go back to.

Late in Clinton’s tenure, the White House put forth a document celebrating “Historic Economic Growth” during the administration and pointing to the policy accomplishments it deemed responsible for this growth. Among the achievements on Clinton’s list were “Modernizing for the New Economy through Technology and Consensus Deregulation.” That’s right, a Clinton White House document credited part of the administration’s success to that now dreaded d-word, deregulation.

“In 1993,” the document explained, “the laws that governed America’s financial service sector were antiquated and anti-competitive. The Clinton-Gore Administration fought to modernize those laws to increase competition in traditional banking, insurance, and securities industries to give consumers and small businesses more choices and lower costs.”

Everything in those passages is true. All that’s missing is credit to the GOP-controlled Congress elected in 1994 for passing most of the policies that led to the prosperity. But the Clinton administration, whatever its personal and policy flaws, should indeed be praised for signing and advocating this deregulation. These bipartisan financial policies, however, were the very same policies that Obama, Joe Biden, and other Democrats attacked during the campaign of 2008 and throughout the next four years. “Let’s, first of all, understand that the biggest problem in this whole process was the deregulation of the financial system,” Obama proclaimed in the second presidential debate of 2008.

But on financial policy, ironically, Clinton was a far more deregulatory president than George W. Bush. As James Gattuso of the Heritage Foundation points out, while there may have been flawed oversight, there really was no actual financial deregulation under Bush. Indeed, Bush’s signature achievement in the financial area was the signing and implementing of the costly and counterproductive Sarbanes-Oxley accounting mandates.

Take Gramm-Leach-Bliley, the 1999 law Clinton signed repealing the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, which had strictly separated
traditional commercial banking from investment banking. Obama’s supporters, claiming that getting rid of Glass-Steagall led to the credit blowup, have seized on the first name on the law, that of former Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), to bash it as a piece of Republican deregulation. Never mind that the Senate passed the legislation by a vote of 90-8, with many Democrats voting for the final bill, including now-Vice President Biden.

What’s more, Clinton himself defends Glass-Steagall’s repeal to this day. In a 2008 Business Week interview with CNBC personality Maria Bartiromo, Clinton said plainly, “I don’t see that signing that bill had anything to do with the current crisis.” He even added that its lifting of barriers to financial service mergers may have lessened the crisis’ impact, pointing out, “Indeed, one of the things that has helped stabilize the current situation as much as it has is the purchase of Merrill Lynch by Bank of America, which was much smoother than it would have been if I hadn’t signed that bill.”

Clinton was — and is — correct. The law benefited the economy by creating more choice and competition, and there is little evidence of Glass-Steagall’s repeal playing a role in the mortgage crisis. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Peter Wallison noted in The Wall Street Journal, “None of the investment banks that have gotten into trouble—Bear, Lehman, Merrill, Goldman or Morgan Stanley — were affiliated with commercial banks.” He also pointed out that “the banks that have succumbed to financial problems — Wachovia, Washington Mutual and IndyMac, among others got into trouble by investing in bad mortgages or mortgage-backed securities, not because of the securities activities of an affiliated securities firm.”

Clinton also championed the Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking and Branching Efficiency Act, which passed in 1994, before Republicans even took over Congress. As the previously mentioned Clinton White House “Historic Economic Growth” document put it, “in 1994, the Clinton-Gore Administration broke another decades-old logjam by allowing banks to branch across state lines.”

Riegle-Neal finally allowed the U.S. to have nationwide banking chains, as virtually every other developed country does. Anyone who remembers the inconvenience of not being able to access your own bank’s ATM when driving into another state can attest to the benefits this law brought. Federal Reserve GovernorRandall Kroszner has credited the law for a myriad of economic benefits including “higher economic and employment growth, spurred by more-efficient and more-diverse banks” and “more entrepreneurial activity, as the more bank-dependent sectors of the economy, such as small businesses and entrepreneurs, achieve greater access to credit.”

Yet when Republican rival John McCain in 2008 advocated letting individuals purchase insurance across state lines and wrote in a journal article that “opening up the health insurance market to more vigorous nationwide competition, as we have done over the last decade in banking, would provide more choices of innovative products,” the Obama campaign hit the roof. “McCain just published an article praising Wall Street deregulation,” an Obama’s attack ad exclaimed. “Said he’d reduce oversight of the health insurance industry, too.”

At the time, lambasted this ad for quoting McCain “out of context on health care.” But as I wrote for Reason in 2008, “the greater worry is that the attacks on the bipartisan deregulation that led to prosperity appeared to be quite in context for Obama, at least during the campaign. If President-elect Obama wants to pull the U.S. economy out of its rut, he must face up to the fact that ’90s deregulation was an essential ingredient in Clinton’s recipe for an economic boom. He also must recognize that substantially undoing the liberalizations that Clinton and the GOP Congress achieved would crimp recovery as well as create new problems.”

Alas, with the possible exception this year of his signing of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act, which provides modest relief to smaller firms from Bush’s Sarbanes-Oxley and Obama’s own mammoth Dodd-Frank mandates, Obama has yet recognize the role deregulation played in fostering the Clinton-era growth he says he wants to achieve.

The Clinton era should not be romanticized by free marketeers. Clinton did pursue statist policies that grew government and favored public sector unions, as author Mallory Factor reminds us in his blockbuster new book, Shadowbosses. The government-sponsored housing enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that weakened market discipline grew substantially, as well as housing regulations that encouraged perverse incentives, such as Clinton’s expansion of the Community Reinvestment Act. These are areas where the Clinton administration was not deregulatory and can be blamed for encouraging bad loans to be made (as can the George W. Bush administration).

Nevertheless, the Clinton-GOP governance, despite the constant bickering and backbiting, ironically left a shining legacy of prosperity, which bipartisan deregulation was so much a part of. In terms of economic growth, there are few better examples of bipartisan success than this tenure. We can only hope this aspect of Clinton’s presidency will be emulated once again.