With the passing of Sen. Ted Kennedy, the gavel he wielded as chair of the Senate Health, Labor, Education & Pensions Committee must pass as well. The senator next in line to chair the committee is an old Kennedy friend, Sen. Chris Dodd. Sen. Dodd, however, currently chairs the Senate Banking Committee and would have to relinquish that gavel if he were to replace Kennedy and shepherd through the health care reform bill championed by his departed friend. A switch in committees may be just what the Connecticut senator needs right now. As negative feelings have increased about bank bailouts, Sen. Dodd has come under withering criticism for his close ties, and large campaign contributions from, the financial sector. Unfortunately, he may be replaced by another senator with similar conflicts. Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota is next in line to replace Sen. Dodd and has similarly close ties to the financial sector.
According to Open Secrets from 2003-2008, Sen. Johnson has pulled in $1,407,958 from the finance, insurance and real estate sector. While this pales in comparison to Sen. Dodd’s $9,097,107 over the same period of time, it accounts for 20% of the South Dakota senator’s campaign haul. Sen. Johnson’s finance contributions are aided by the importance of South Dakota to the finance and credit industries. These companies only need to abide by the regulations of the state within which they are incorporated and South Dakota has some of loosest regulations for bank holding and credit card companies. This has led to a large number of credit and banks companies locating in the small plains state, providing for tens of thousands of jobs.
The support Sen. Johnson receives from the industry, and their importance to his state, is reflected in the senator’s recent voting record. Donny Shaw at Open Congress (Friend of Sunlight) looked at Sen. Johnson’s recent votes and showed that he stands out among Democrats in his support for the credit card industry. The senator was the only Democrat to oppose a recent law, sponsored by Sen. Dodd, to “restrict unfair credit card rate increases, penalties and fees, and bans deceptive and predatory practices.” He was also one of a handful of Democrats to oppose a series of amendments meant to impose tougher regulations on credit card companies.
Sen. Johnson isn’t just connected to the finance sector through his campaign contributions and his votes, but also by his former staffers turned lobbyists. Two of Sen. Johnson’s former staffers currently work for firms representing financial clients or companies in the financial world. In 2005, Naomi Camper left her position as staff director for Sen. Johnson on the Senate Financial Institutions Subcommittee to become co-head of Federal Government Relations at JPMorgan Chase, one the biggest banks in the United States. Dwight Fettig, a former staff director of Sen. Johnson, became a partner in the almost exclusively finance-related lobbying shop, Porterfield, Lowenthal & Fettig. Clients at Fettig’s firm include the American Bankers Association, the Coalition of Private Investment Companies, NASDAQ and the National Association of Mortgage Brokers.
These connections and contributions should be of concern to anyone who is already alarmed by the relationship that Sen. Dodd has with the financial sector. As the government continues to determine it’s role in the financial sector, through bailouts and Federal Reserve lending, it may be better to reserve committee chairs for those without the conflicts that Sen. Johnson may bring with him.