Keith Ellison vs. Lloyd Blankfein
Even if Congress was scrupulously independent of Wall Street — which is hardly the case — it would be no match for Wall Street when it came to drafting legislation that made the financial system fairer and more transparent.
The problem is a combination of priorities and expertise.
To take just one example, consider Congressman Keith Ellison, who is now serving his second term representing Minneapolis. (He’s better known nationally as the first Muslim member of Congress.)
I don’t know Mr. Ellison well, but since he and I were in the same law school class (University of Minnesota, 1990), I think it’s fair to say that I know him better than most voters.
Law School Recollections
Almost two decades(!) later, what I remember of Mr. Ellison from law school was his passion for civil rights, and unwavering identification with the underdog. His frequent comments in class almost always spoke to the various ways minorities face discrimination in our society — undoubtedly still true even today.
Coming from a large family in urban Detroit, he knows those issues not just in a theoretical, academic way — but personally and intimately.
After law school, Mr. Ellison continued to make social justice the cornerstone of his career, both as a state legislator representing Minneapolis’ north side, and as a lawyer in private practice.
In fact, his passion — and those of his supporters — was a decided advantage in the big, fragmented field that inevitably materialized to replace Martin Sabo, Minneapolis’ long-time Congressman, when Sabo suddenly announced his retirement in Spring, 2006.
Campaign Finance Stumble
Ironically, the one issue that threatened Mr. Ellison’s march to the primary — the only contest that matters in heavily democratic Minneapolis — was campaign finance.
Specifically, Mr. Ellison’s practice of filing tardy, incomplete and/or incorrect finance disclosures.
As I recall, the amounts were trivial: one report showed something like $35,000 of contributions when the correct amount was $40,000 — or vice versa.
Mr. Ellison made the requisite apologies, promised to do better — and proceeded to win election to what is universally regarded to be one of the nation’s safest House seats.
He was easily re-elected in 2008.
Financial Background: Zip
So what’s wrong with this picture?
Getting a $40,000 (or was it $35,000) campaign finance disclosure wrong is not exactly confidence-inspiring when it come to tackling TARP-size numbers, with literally eight(!) more zeroes.
Putting the best possible face on this matter, I think it’s fair to say that for Mr. Ellison — much like Barack Obama — finance is very far afield from what excites and motivates him politically.
So, to the extent that he has to deal with those issues at all, his instinct is to delegate.
There’s nothing wrong, per se, with delegating to people more knowledgeable than yourself; after all, no one can be an expert on everything.
However, what happens when the “experts” you’ve chosen disagree?
For that matter, how do you know which “experts” to pick?
If Congressman Ellison knew what the future held in store for him 20 years ago, I bet I would have seen more of him in my Antitrust Law, Uniform Commercial Code, and other business law classes way back in law school.