With the Dodd-Frank Act almost over, President Obama last Saturday said he would press on to the big-bank tax his Administration has dubbed a “responsibility fee.” We think that this will be an even harder slog than the long march toward the banking bill, in large part because of the ill will resulting from the conference committee’s late-night maneuver on another bank tax. The latest one isn’t doomed, but it won’t pass in regular order. Its only chance is – yet again – in dark of night but, even then, only if Democrats need it to pay for pre-election give-aways in a bill the GOP can’t block.

The saga of the first, doomed bank tax isn’t pretty. Somewhere between 2 AM and 5:30 AM on the morning of June 25, House and Senate conferees added $19 billion in fees on banks with over $50 billion in assets and hedge funds. They did this to balance the books – or at least to get the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to agree that they had. Scoring bills as budget-neutral is vital now that the House has committed itself to PAYGO – that is, to ensuring that any legislation that costs money is somehow paid for by someone. The big sinkhole in the reform bill was largely created by the conferees’ decision to go the big banks’ way and fund systemic resolutions after the fact, instead of with the House’s upfront $150 billion fund. CBO – rightly, we think – said that taxpayers would never escape scott-free from systemic resolutions. Without an upfront fee, it thus scored the bill as a cost to taxpayers the House had to find a way to offset.

When it did so, however, the fragile compromise Sen. Dodd had crafted to get his sixty votes collapsed. The bill might have withstood the defection of Massachusetts’s Sen. Brown, but it couldn’t after Sen. Byrd died only two days after the conference concluded. This brought the conference back to the negotiating table on Tuesday, when Democrats substituted an early demise for the TARP and still more FDIC premiums from big banks for the initial measure.

The Tuesday session was marked by loud cries from conference Republicans, who added the budget maneuver to all the things they already hate about the bill. This will all be repeated on the Senate floor but, so far, to little ultimate effect as far as the Dodd-Frank Act goes.

But, this isn’t to say that the Administration escaped unscathed. As noted, we think the next tax contemplated for big banks is a casualty of the shenanigans on the first. The House will pass the responsibility fee, but its fate as a freestanding bill in the Senate was always dubious. Despite the “fee” moniker, the charge on big institutions is a tax and, as a result, Republicans and moderate Democrats will be seriously troubled by it. Without this history, the bill still might have made it over the sixty-vote yard line. Now, the residual anger will block pretty much anything like a new bank tax, ending the chances for regular order action on the responsibility fee.

Does that end it once and for all? That’s a harder question. The dark-of-night process that led to the conference fees will be repeated on a grander scale at the close of this Congress when an array of must-pass and, now, must-pay-for bills comes up. This is when the Obama big-bank tax will be a tempting offset for any number of constituent goodies. Thus, even if safe for now, big financial institutions face yet another day of costly reckoning as this Congress continues to wreak its will against them.

 

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