WASHINGTON — If Republican Mitt Romney wins the presidency next week, enough Democrats probably would be left in Congress to block his promise to roll back the slew of Wall Street rules enacted in response to the financial crisis.
But when it comes to regulations, a president doesn’t have to change the laws.
He can simply change the people enforcing them.
“If you don’t like the regulations, just cut the head off the beast,” said Paul C. Light, a New York University professor and expert on presidential transitions. “The president still has some leverage points for influencing the pace and direction of the regulatory process.”
Romney would be expected to appoint new leaders at the Treasury Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission and other agencies who would take a less aggressive approach to regulation than those who have served under President Barack Obama.
For example, instead of nominating someone like Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, an advocate of tougher federal oversight of the financial system, Romney would be expected to fill the position with a less activist nominee, such as former George W. Bush administration economic advisor Glenn Hubbard or former World Bank President Robert Zoellick.
In addition, a Romney administration could leave weakened acting heads in vacant regulatory posts, cut funding for some agencies, and delay the implementation of dozens of rules still being written by regulators as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.
“He would certainly want to have a regulatory structure that includes the statutes, the regulations and the people enforcing those regulations that places a premium on market-based discipline rather than the discretion of individuals,” said Jon Burks, deputy policy director for the Romney campaign.
“He’s committed to ensuring that the federal government doesn’t increase the regulatory burden on the private sector,” Burks said. “So every regulation needs to be reviewed in terms of what effect it has on job creation and on economic growth.”
Romney, the founder and former chief executive of venture capital firm Bain Capital, has complained that the Dodd-Frank law was a government overreaction to the financial crisis.
“You couldn’t have people opening up banks in their garage and making loans. I mean, you have to have regulations so that you can have an economy work,” he said in the first presidential debate. “Every free economy has good regulation. At the same time, regulation can become excessive.”
Many of the regulations in the financial reform law fall into that category, Romney said.
Although some concepts are good, such as increased transparency in the financial system and requirements for banks to hold more money to cover potential losses, the law puts too much power in the hands of regulators, he said.
Romney has promised to repeal the financial reform law and replace it with “a streamlined regulatory framework” that would reduce uncertainty for businesses and consumers.
“I think if Gov. Romney is elected, there will be an attempt to go back and see what parts of Dodd-Frank are particularly onerous,” said Phillip Swagel, co-chair of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Financial Regulatory Reform Initiative.
Obama has touted the financial regulatory overhaul as the “toughest reforms on Wall Street since the 1930s.”
“Does anybody out there think that the big problem we had is that there was too much oversight and regulation of Wall Street?” Obama said during last month’s first debate. “Because if you do, then Gov. Romney is your candidate. But that’s not what I believe.”
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., one of the lead authors of the complex legislation, noted that House Republican leaders didn’t hold a single vote on repealing financial reform after taking control in 2011, but held several votes to repeal the health care law.
Although just three congressional Republicans voted for the Dodd-Frank law, which much of the financial industry opposed, it’s difficult politically to try to roll back Wall Street regulations.
But Frank said he still is worried about the effect of a Romney victory on the law that bears his name.
“He can do enormous damage just by changing the regulators,” Frank said. “He would simply appoint people who didn’t want to use the powers.”
The financial reform law expanded the power of the Treasury secretary by making that Cabinet member the head of a new panel of regulators called the Financial Stability Oversight Council.
In addition, the president appoints new chairs of the SEC and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. And often, a change at the White House prompts the heads of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and other independent agencies with remaining years in their terms to step down, if the new president desires.
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“I think most people don’t want to stay in those jobs if the president doesn’t want them. It really weakens you,” said former FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair, a Bush-appointed Republican.
She offered to step down when Obama was elected, but the president asked her to stay, which she did until her five-year term ended last year.
The chairman of the Federal Reserve, however, normally doesn’t volunteer to step down early.
Romney already has said he would not reappoint Ben S. Bernanke as chairman of the nation’s central bank when Bernanke’s term expires in early 2014. And Obama’s recess appointment of Richard Cordray to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau expires at the end of 2013. Cordray, a Democrat, has said he would complete his term regardless of whether Romney is elected.
“Dodd-Frank is all about regulatory implementation, so I think there’s a lot of discretion and latitude to implement Dodd-Frank or not implement Dodd-Frank as the next administration may see fit,” Bair said.