Rupert Cornwell: Why the reality may not match Obama's rhetoric

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The Independent Online

Listen to President Obama's stern words yesterday, and you'd assume nothing will ever be the same on Wall Street again. Speeches, however, are not laws. For the time being nothing, legally, has changed since the collapse of Lehman Brothers a year ago. And there's no guarantee it will.

The "strong rules of the road" upon which the President insisted will not be written either in the White House or on Wall Street. They will be written and adopted by a Congress that already has more than enough on its plate, and which will be besieged by interests richer and even more powerful, if possible, than those seeking to shape healthcare legislation.

For the moment, health dominates, and is likely to do so for weeks. It is the President's top priority. Behind it comes the "cap and trade" green energy bill whose passage is crucial if the US is to have credibility at December's climate change conference in Copenhagen. Reform of financial markets is only third on the list, and its urgency will ebb with every additional day that markets, and the wider economy, seem to be returning to normality. For that reason alone, Mr Obama's insistence on a financial bill by the end of the year is probably wishful thinking. Another reason is the might of the banking and insurance lobby which spent close to $400m £241m) on lobbying Congress in 2008 alone.

Both main prongs of intended reform are under threat. The proposed wider authority for the Federal Reserve could easily fall foul of the anti-government mood visible in the bitter opposition to aspects of mooted healthcare reform. In this case, the new powers would be granted to an unelected central bank that critics say is already not properly answerable to Congress.

The planned Consumer Financial Protection Agency, aimed at protecting ordinary Americans from predatory banks, is at even greater risk. Influential bodies such as the US Chamber of Commerce say the CFPA would place a straitjacket on the entire economy.

Currently, responsibility is split between a host of agencies, including the Fed which was accused of being asleep at the wheel before the 2007 sub-prime mortgage crisis. Bureaucracies everywhere hate surrendering turf, and these are no exception. At the very least ferocious horse-trading is inevitable. Whether Congress has the stomach for more of the same after the draining health reform struggle is anything but certain.