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Justice, Commerce Department Funding Stuck Over SEC Budget Dispute

August 14, 1994

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A multibillion-dollar bill to fund the departments of Justice and Commerce and other agencies is hung up over an intense dispute concerning the Securities and Exchange Commission’s 1995 budget.

Senate Republicans strongly oppose a measure to place the SEC, the agency that polices Wall Street, on a self-funded basis. They argue that such a move would weaken Congress’ oversight authority.

Powerful House Democrats, led by Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell of Michigan, meanwhile, have threatened to shut down the SEC unless the Senate backs the self-funding proposal. At issue are important precedents involving House jurisdiction over the budget process.

The impasse over the SEC’s budget has stalled a larger $25 billion bill to fund the commission, as well as the departments of Justice, Commerce and a number of independent agencies, House and Senate staffers said. They expect the larger funding bill will eventually pass but are unsure when and how the SEC budget issue will be resolved.

The controversy centers on the fact that the SEC collects much more money in fees from Wall Street firms and mutual funds than it spends to enforce securities laws.

Next year, it is expected to bring in $813.5 million in fees, but budgeted spending for the agency is only $305 million. The balance is deposited in the government’s general fund and used for a host of programs unrelated to the world of Wall Street.

Dingell contends this is a situation by which American businesses and investors pay for a level of regulation that they do not receive.

He strongly favors making the SEC a self-funded agency, much like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. His self-funding bill passed the House in July 1993, but has since languished in the Senate Banking Committee.

A key reason is the vigorous opposition of Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, who argues that SEC’s fees make it too expensive to raise money in the nation’s stock and bond markets and thus deter economic growth. Gramm, the ranking Republican on the banking panel’s securities subcommittee, argues the SEC’s budget has grown too much - 145 percent since 1986 - and that a self-funded SEC ″would only increase the likelihood of escalating fees on the securities markets.″

″The fundamental issue is proper congressional control of an independent federal agency,″ Gramm said in a recent letter.

The SEC, with the support of the main securities and mutual fund trade groups, says self-funding is essential to expand and better supervise the nation’s rapidly growing financial markets.

″With our current resources, we are only able to inspect investment advisers once every 27 years and small and medium mutual funds every six years,″ SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt said. Self-funding is essential to protecting the nation’s investors, he argues.

Dingell used a risky and unusual legislative tactic in June to pressure Senate Republicans to act on his stalled self-funding bill: He threatened to abolish the SEC. At Dingell’s direction, the House Appropriations Committee slashed the SEC’s budget to $58.9 million, just enough to pay expenses and shut the doors on Oct. 1, the first day of the 1995 fiscal year.

″They are very serious about it and they would like to see the Senate banking committee take some action on self-funding legislation,″ said Kathryn Fulton, the SEC’s director of legislative affairs.

The Senate didn’t go along.

Faced with strong Republican opposition, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., decided not to force the self-funding issue, said a Senate staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Hollings’ bill restored the SEC’s full budget request of $305 million, mostly through existing fees.

Dingell now plans to object to the Senate bill as unconstitutional because all revenue-raising bills are supposed to originate in the House.

A House-Senate conference committee has been named to work out the differences between the two bills, and they’re expected not to reach agreement on the self-funding question, said Gramm spokesman Larry Neal.

The overall Justice, Commerce and related agencies bill is expected to pass separately but it will be delayed until the full House and Senate pass a resolution resolving the SEC budget problem, he said.

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