Ten years ago last night, I was hosting a dinner at my house for 30 or so hungry law students to talk about what life after law school might look like. The barbecue and peach cobbler were out, the iced tea was steeping, and our golden retriever Otis was ready running in slobbery circles.
And 10 minutes before everyone was supposed to arrive, my phone rang.
The caller was a soft-spoken man who identified himself as “Harry Reid.”
I could barely hear him. “Who?” I asked.
“Um, Harry Reid.” Pause. “Majority leader, U.S. Senate.”
“Oh.” (Great start!)
Senator Reid got right to the point – no small talk. It was 2008, and the country was freefalling into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. He wanted me to come to Washington to help provide some oversight of the Treasury Department’s handling of the $700 billion bank bailout.
I don’t think I’d ever met Senator Reid, and I didn’t know what that meant or what I could do. But millions of middle-class families were getting crushed. So if Senator Reid asked me to help by mopping floors or licking envelopes, I would have said yes.
Our Congressional Oversight Panel (COP) didn’t have the power to subpoena witnesses or demand documents. We couldn’t stop Treasury from flooding the big banks with no-strings-attached money from the American taxpayers. We couldn’t break up the big banks, or launch criminal investigations, or force the Justice Department to march bank executives out in handcuffs.
And in my darkest moments, what really shut me down was this: we couldn’t change a system that seemed hell-bent on protecting the big guys and leaving everyone else by the side of the road.
But we also blew the BS whistle more than once, and a lot of people heard us. For example, our report about the bonuses that Wall Street banks gave executives using TARP bailout money helped return billions of dollars to the US Treasury.
And we helped shine a spotlight on a too-cozy, underfunded regulatory system that had utterly failed when it was most needed – and that spotlight helped us put the wind in our sails for real financial reform, including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
After I left the oversight panel to set up the consumer agency, I spent a lot more time in the Treasury Building. Every now and then, someone would stop me and say: “You don’t know me, but I was working in the XX section during the financial crisis. When we talked about what we should do, someone always seemed to ask, ‘What will Elizabeth Warren say when she hears about this?’ That usually made people stop and think again.”
I never thought that comment was about me. It was about the great team we put together to try to hold our government accountable. But it was also a comment about democracy. To me it was another way of saying, “What if everyone knew what we were up to?”
I remember the injustice and heartbreak that millions of families suffered from Wall Street’s greed like it was yesterday. Their stories are written on my heart.
So I’m fighting tooth and nail to stop the bank lobbyists and their friends in Washington from gutting the Dodd-Frank financial reforms. Especially the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency that has already returned $12 billion directly to people cheated on mortgages, credit cards, student loans, and other financial products. We won’t let the big banks go back to gambling with our economy and put us at risk for another financial crisis.
And I’m working my heart out to hold the big banks and financial institutions accountable when they cheat people. That’s why I grilled the CEO of Wells Fargo when his bank got caught opening millions of fake accounts and costing customers millions of dollars in fees. And it’s why I push government regulators to do more to hold executives accountable when their banks scam people and break the law.
We need stronger rules on Wall Street, not weaker ones. That’s why I’ve repeatedly introduced the 21st Century Glass-Steagall Act to break up the big banks by separating boring commercial banking (checking and saving accounts) from risky investment banking. I’ve introduced the Ending Too Big to Jail Act, so bank executives can be held personally responsible for their banks’ cheating. And I’ve introduced the Anti-Corruption Act, the most ambitious anti-corruption legislation since Watergate, to help lock the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington.
Before Harry Reid called me on the night of the student barbecue ten years ago, I had never thought much about government oversight. But with COP, I learned an essential truth: When you have no real power, go public – really public.
The people are where the real power is. And together, that’s how we’ll make real change.