In proposing a broad, complex overhaul of US financial regulation Monday, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson cautioned that the plan would take years of patient negotiation to execute. Some elements could move in the near term, he said, but most must wait until "the current market stress is past."
But for many lawmakers – returning to Capitol Hill Monday after two weeks in their states and districts – the priority is quick, decisive action to show voters they grasp the magnitude of the crisis threatening the No. 1 investment of many families: their homes.
That disconnect is one reason for an initial mixed response to the Bush administration plan among key committee chairs, as well as many top GOP lawmakers.
"The administration's blueprint, while deserving of careful consideration, would do little if anything to alleviate the current crisis – which was brought on by a failure of will," said Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut, who chairs the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, in a statement.
For Congress, the first step in a crisis is to summon those deemed responsible to a hearing room to lob tough questions at them in front of TV cameras. On April 3, the Senate banking panel will question regulators and CEOs of Bear Stearns and JPMorgan Chase about "the current market turmoil."
In the House, Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts praised Paulson's initiative as "a very constructive step forward." But the "profound national discussion" needed to complete the initiative "cannot be concluded in the months before the election," said Mr. Frank, who chairs the House Financial Services Committee.
Still, Frank was encouraging. Paulson's rejection of the status quo and his argument "that new regulation done properly enhances the function of the market rather than detracts from it," says Frank, have narrowed differences with Democrats.
Rep. Spencer Bachus, the ranking Republican on the panel, commended the Bush administration for producing a "far-reaching" blueprint, but added that some reforms will require "additional study and careful consideration."
Congress's last overhaul of financial regulation took eight years. Many other overhauls gathered more dust than votes, says Kenneth Thomas, a finance expert at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. "These things always look good on paper, but we have to overlay the political feasibility of all this. Oftentimes it doesn't happen," he says. "There's so much regulatory turf to be protected" that the results may not match the initial vision.
Some ideas will encounter resistance, such as merging the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and federal involvement in regulating the insurance industry, says Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia. "States will ... [argue] that they are closer to the people and can be more effective than a federal bureaucracy."
In the short term, Democrats aim to move bills to give prompt relief to homeowners facing foreclosure. Senate majority leader Harry Reid plans on Tuesday to reintroduce a housing package that provides $4 billion for cities to buy foreclosed properties. The measure failed Feb. 28 by a vote of 48 to 46, but Democrats say the deepening housing crisis could change some GOP votes.
"There's clearly a sense now that the hands-off approach to financial markets has not worked," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University. "There's pressure from working-class Americans to do more [and] that's translating into momentum."
• Staff writer Mark Trumbull contributed to this report.