Cantwell takes on Wall Street fat cats

By:  Joel Connelly
Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer

The U.S. Senate often moves with the speed of a three-toed sloth, its taboos equal to those of a New Guinea tribe. In this venue, fraught with frustration, Sen. Maria Cantwell tries to get stuff done.

After the health care marathon that ended with a 7 a.m. vote on Christmas Eve, I expected whiffs of impatience at a sit down with the "Gentle Lady from Washington" last week.

Instead, from Cantwell came lessons in patience and perseverance, rather like hearing a cool-headed explorer talk about negotiating paths through the New Guinea jungle.

Cantwell has just introduced, with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a bill that would restore the Depression-era Glass-Steagal law, which erected a barrier between commercial banks and investment banks.

A cause of America's recent travails, argues Cantwell, is that financial institutions entrusted with safely holding the public's savings have taken wanton risks with the money.

An amused Cantwell noted, however, that financial institutions control purse strings on political contributions, and carry much clout on Capitol Hill. Reinstating Glass-Steagal is, politically, as much an uphill grind as climbing out of the Tsangpo River gorge in Tibet.

Still, the Cantwell-McCain initiative has its up side(s). Its boldness, and banks' fears, might clear a path to other reforms. Cantwell has pursued reckless deregulation since 2001, when Enron traders created artificial shortages and drove up West Coast electrical rates.

Another aim of the legislation goes unstated: Colleagues see it as a way of coaxing a grumpy, increasingly strident McCain back into his former role as an architect of bold, bipartisan reforms.

Want to talk seriously with Sen. Cantwell? Master the term "derivative," defined by Wikipedia as "a financial instrument that is derived from some other asset, index, event, value or condition (known as the 'underlying asset')." Investors have used derivatives to speculate, to hedge, and to bring down companies that were pillars of Wall Street.

Cantwell mimics the Dixie drawl of former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Mississippi), who loved to tell her, "We're not going to start regulating derivatives. Nobody here knows what they are."

Influence in the Senate is derived from committee assignments, in Cantwell's case by a phone call fielded in Beijing three years ago.

Re-elected just four days earlier, Cantwell was in China to launch a bid to have two superpowers collaborate in creating new, non-polluting energy technologies and find a way to sequester greenhouse gases released by coal plants. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid came on the line and asked Cantwell to take a post on the Senate Finance Committee. No Washington senator had served on the tax-writing panel for more than half a century.

The new committee posting -- she kept seats on the Commerce and Energy committees --thrust Cantwell into the middle of health care reform.

She has campaigned to let states enact their own Washington-style basic health plans to care for the working poor. She has included provisions designed to promote care that promotes wellness rather than maximizing unneeded tests.

Reformers run into obstacles. Senators from states specializing in health innovation -- e.g. Washington and Minnesota -- run into suspicion from colleagues that don't have the Mayo Clinic for a model, or a new health care delivery system being tested by the Swedish Medical System and Premiera Blue Cross.

Obstacles in our nation's capital can come from all directions.

Cantwell is a longtime champion of wind energy: One of America's biggest wind "farms" has sprouted near Walla Walla on the Washington-Oregon border. Yet, towers and turbines come mainly from Europe.

Cantwell wants a manufacturing tax credit so towers and turbines will be built here. But lack of enthusiasm Lawrence Summers, director of the National Economic Council, has prevented a tailwind from developing behind the proposal.

Since her Beijing trip, Cantwell has watched China become the world's greatest greenhouse gas emitter, but also embark on huge wind and solar developments. The Middle Kingdom needs to mollify its wheezing citizens, but also wants to get a corner on the marketplace.

"The organizers at the Shanghai Expo are touting clean energy as a way out of the world's recession," Cantwell argued.

The underlying message: We ought to wake up and move. In an effort to get climate legislation moving, Cantwell is again crossing the aisle, cosponsoring legislation with GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

You can watch Washington, D.C., show horses strut across the screens of Cable TV news. It's pleasing to know that a work horse who lifts the heavy end represents this Washington.