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Shakespeare in the Senate
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From what little I can remember from when I remained awake in high school and college, William Shakespeare loved mistaken identities, crossed purposes and scheming villains. Shakespeare would have loved Elizabeth Warren, Richard Shelby and Wall Street bankers.
Warren set liberal hearts aflutter recently when she grilled regulators about why they hadn’t dragged any Wall Street bankers into court. “Grilled” is the accepted metaphor for asking tough questions, but maybe we should check these regulators’ backsides for charred hatch marks. Their admissions that they had not tried a single Wall Street banker made for good theater until Sen. Warren’s monologue brought the house down.
“You know, I just want to note on this. There are district attorneys and U.S. attorneys who are out there every day squeezing ordinary citizens on sometimes very thin grounds. And taking them to trial in order to make an example, as they put it. I’m really concerned that too big to fail has become too big for trial,” she said. “That just seems wrong to me.”
It’s that kind of talk that got her in trouble in the first place. She’s the kind of woman—a Harvard Law professor, no less—who doesn’t seem the least bit sorry to tell powerful men that she caught them doing something wrong. So when Barack Obama passed a Wall Street reform bill, he not only included her idea to create an ombudsman to protect investors and homeowners, he also nominated her to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Enter Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee. He knew what Warren could do overseeing Wall Street, and he was having none of it. I have a rule about politicians: Always keep your receipts. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Shelby’s top four contributors since 2007 are the Travelers Insurance folks ($108,250), JPMorgan Chase & Co. ($72,950), a financial services company called the Blackstone Group ($50,000), and The Bank of New York Mellon ($46,250). And in case you lost your receipts from the bank bailout, JP Morgan Chase & Co. and The Bank of New York Mellon took us for a combined $28 billion, though they did pay us back and then some.
“This about accountability,” said Shelby. “The Bureau, as currently structured, lacks any semblance of the checks and balances inherent in the Constitution.  Everyone supports consumer protection, but we should never entrust a single person with this much power and public money.”
The funny thing about this is that Shelby was telling the truth. This really was about accountability, and Shelby didn’t want Wall Street to have any, and he definitely didn’t want Warren to have that much power. Shelby has a kindler, gentler idea of overseeing Wall Street: When JPMorgan lost $2 billion of our money and Jamie Dimon got hauled in for a Senate hearing, Shelby didn’t so much grill him as offer Dimon a milkshake and ask if the room wasn’t too chilly for him.
Shelby and the rest of his Republican Senators blocked Warren’s appointment until Obama changed the law that he passed despite their obstruction. Obama did not relent, but Warren could not stick around forever, so Obama withdrew her nomination and instead chose Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray.
At this point, what had been a story of dreary Washington gridlock became a Shakespearean comedy. Shelby and the rest of the Senate left for the weekend, and Obama moved Cordray into office where he’s been irritating Wall Street ever since.
And Warren, like the Twelfth Night heroine who donned men’s clothes to access power unavailable to women, won election to the Senate, which until recently had been one of the world’s greatest bastions of moneyed, male power. Warren even got appointed to the Banking Committee, where she’s now too famous to shut up and on the majority, no less. And because Republicans failed to win back the Senate, Shelby’s still the ranking member of the minority Republicans, meaning he has a really good view of Warren where she enjoys the power he worked so hard to deny her. Oh, what a tangled web we weave.
Almost makes you feel sorry for him.
Jason Stanford is a nationally syndicated columnist, author and Democratic political consultant who lives in Texas. He can be reached at and on Twitter @jasstanford.