Bank lobby builds ‘political machine’ to spend for 2020 House and Senate races

Posted at 3:00 AM, Jul 18, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-18 10:32:16-04

The trade association for the nation’s banking industry is ramping up its political operation in Washington, planning an eight-figure effort to shape more congressional races in 2020 than ever before.

“We’re building a political machine here that I think is critically important to help complement our public policy direction,” Rob Nichols, the CEO of the American Bankers Association, told CNN in an interview.

The ABA’s so-called Voter Education Fund, which it set up last election cycle to buy ads, polls and opposition research, support “get out the vote” efforts and train candidates, spent more than $1 million in 2018 and engaged in a dozen congressional races.

In 2020, Nichols said the fund will be “exponentially larger.”

For years, the ABA has focused the majority of its resources on lobbying members of Congress rather than boosting their campaigns: It has spent between $3 million and $4 million on political contributions and over $10 million on lobbying the past few years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

But Nichols and ABA chief political strategist Rob Engstrom, who respectively joined the group in 2015 and 2017, want to sustain a political program for every election cycle in order to shape a Congress more to their liking. The group, which has not yet endorsed a candidate this year, pledges to support Republicans and Democrats, get involved early in the election cycle and to influence races where it can make a difference. It plans to grow its nearly-$4 million political action committee, work with its grassroots members and spend a great deal more through its advocacy fund.

“If you support good banking policy, if you support and understand our industry and the role that our industry plays in the economy, we want to support you,” Nichols said.

The banking sector enjoyed the first two years of the Trump administration, hitting record profits after President Donald Trump and the Republican-led Congress passed its tax overhaul bill in 2017. In 2018, Congress passed its first major, bipartisan legislation to loosen some of the rules put in place by the 2010 Dodd-Frank law.

Nichols said its 2018 political effort was an “entry step into the dance.” The ABA supported eight Republicans and four Democrats in Congress, typically in close races — winning eight and losing four.

The ABA’s political support rewarded allies on their top policy priorities. Last election, it bought ads for Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat and co-sponsor of the aforementioned bill that relaxed federal oversight of banks with assets of less than $250 billion, and for Republican Rep. Ted Budd of North Carolina, who reportedly took the side of banks over retailers during the fight to roll back Dodd-Frank.

Now, under a Democratic-led House and Republican-led Senate, the ABA wants Congress to pass bipartisan “pro-banking” bills, including one to remove restrictions on providing banking services to marijuana-related businesses and another recently introduced by Budd to delay and study a new accounting rule that could cut into a bank earnings by forcing them to more quickly record losses on loans.

But some Democrats doubt Nichols’ claim that the ABA is “rigorously” bipartisan and are wary of its search for greater political influence.

“‘Bipartisanship’ as long as it’s the bankers’ way,” scoffed Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, the top Democrat on the Senate Banking committee and an opponent of the 2018 bill that overhauled Dodd-Frank.

Brown added, “It’s hard to think that Wall Street and the big banks can get more involved in trying to pick legislators to protect them.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correctly identify the trade group for the nation’s banking industry. It is the American Bankers Association.