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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sen. Dick Durbin: No agent of change

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

When the public's loathing of Congress is soaring, why is the re-election of Sen. Dick Durbin, an architect of that body's many disorders, thought to be a cinch?

How low is Congress' job approval rating? While President George W. Bush's is a dismal 32 percent, according to RealClearPoli- tics.com, Congress' is an even more wretched 21 percent. As the Senate majority whip and second in command, Durbin can't escape blame.

One can find many reasons why Durbin shouldn't be re-elected and his Republican rival Steve Sauerberg deserves a closer look: Durbin's grinding partisanship, among the worst in the Senate, according to washingtonpost.com; the millions he has raised from clout-heavy, legal, securities, investment and real estate interests, according to OpenSecrets.org; his craven about-face on abortion; his unabashed love of earmarks. True, some voters might support Durbin for those reasons. But when measured by the Democratic mantra—the willingness or ability to change things—Durbin flunks.

Consider the fate of Durbin's own legislation, the awkwardly named Increasing Transparency and Accountability in Oil Prices Act. He introduced it in June as a response to the "excessive speculation" by oil traders supposedly responsible for driving spot crude oil prices more than $140 a barrel. The bill would strengthen the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) to help nail those nasty traders by, for example, closing the "London loophole" that allows traders to "avoid speculation limits and reporting requirements by routing transactions through off-shore markets." Naturally, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama assigned the bill to a high place on his agenda for change.

Well, at least it made for a good news release; the bill is still sitting in a Senate committee because Durbin and the rest of the party's leadership couldn't get the votes to bring the legislation to the floor for debate. Yes, blame Republicans for opposing full debate. But there's also this: Republicans and Democrats agreed to the two-thirds majority requirement, and those are the rules of the game that the leadership of either party must work with if they want to change anything. Also, Republicans would have agreed to a full debate if the legislation also contained provisions for increased access to domestic oil, but the Democrats wouldn't allow it. So much for bipartisanship to get change.

Wait, it gets better: The premier trader of oil futures (where presumably most of the "excessive speculation" occurs) is the New York Mercantile Exchange. That exchange recently was acquired by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which also recently took over the Chicago Board of Trade. The combined CME Group now controls a mind-bending 98 percent of the U.S. futures market.

That makes the CME one of the most important cogs in the city's and state's economy, and no Illinois politician in his right mind from either party, including Durbin, would want to take it on.

But Durbin would, some might argue, because he courageously puts the public good ahead of parochial, special interests. OK, but perhaps not.

Here's why: The Justice and the Treasury Departments said they might look into whether the CME/NYMEX merger would impose "unnecessary restraints on competition [that] threaten the ability of the U.S. financial markets to adapt to changing dynamics, including the increasingly global nature of those markets." Sounds familiar doesn't it, as the recent market crisis has strengthened the argument, especially among Democrats, that the markets need more regulation.

But on Feb. 7, Durbin and Rep. Rahm Emanuel, another denizen of the Chicago political machine, wrote to the departments, expressing "our strong objections" to the look-see. Just the suggestion of a probe, they complained, cost CME shareholders big, causing their stock to fall 17 percent in a single day. Besides, they said, Congress has done everything necessary to make sure that the CFTC does its job. The CFTC, they said, already was engaged in "vigorous oversight."

In other words, Durbin was for the CFTC before he was against it. And it took him only four months to reverse himself. So, which Durbin to believe, the change agent or the status quo agent? The simple-minded, populist basher of complex financial markets? Or the voice of CME shareholders? In truth, Durbin and Emanuel are the quintessential agents of the status quo that Obama condemns. One can wonder if they're even committed to change.

If the fairy godmother showed up tomorrow and granted Obama a wish, and Obama were true to his promise of change, Durbin and Emanuel would immediately disappear like Cinderella's carriage and turn into a pumpkin.

Or maybe that's not Obama's wish at all.

1 comment:

Stephen Schade said...

Mr. Byrne:

Time rated Durbin one of the best senators. And you have based your conclusion on only two examples in a long career. Is this the best you can do?