Wall Street is at the center of one of the nation's most expensive Senate races, in which three main challengers are trying to oust Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato.
The chairman of the powerful Senate banking committee has raised more money than his top three opponents combined - much of that from the financial services industry, lawyers and lobbyists, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign-finance research group in Washington.
Of the $9.2 million the New York Republican has cultivated in donations toward his re-election campaign, $3.1 million has come from banks, brokerages, insurers and their executives, according to June 3 statistics from the center, the most recent available.
Mr. D'Amato's Senate banking committee - formally the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee - is considering modernizing the financial-service laws that govern banks, insurance companies and finance firms. It's a debate that no one industry seems to agree on. Aspects of the bill have trade groups working overtime trying to get amendments deleted and provisions added.
Consumer groups and campaign watchdogs alike argue that consumers will get short-changed since Wall Street and its money have overshadowed the debate.
"The industries that want it to pass are throwing money at the chairman to get it through," said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit congressional watchdog group. "The biggest banks want the bill, but small banks and others don't want it, consumer groups don't want it."
The Financial Modernization Act of 1998 would allow banks, securities firms and insurance companies to compete in each other's lines of business.
"D'Amato sits in such a powerful position because of his prominent role as chairman of the Senate banking committee that these interests can't ignore him," said Jennifer Schecter, a researcher for the center. "That puts him in a very, very powerful place in terms of fund raising."
Compared with Mr. D'Amato's $9.2 million, his three top opponents - former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, Mark Green and Rep. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat - have raised a combined $9.1 million as of June 3.
Congress has failed nearly a dozen times over the past 20 years to pass the controversial reforms because of differences among lawmakers, industry groups and regulators.
The bill "requires a major reconfiguration before it can serve as a framework for our nation's financial system in the next century," acting Comptroller of the Currency Julie Williams testified yesterday before Mr. D'Amato's committee. The comptroller's office, under the Treasury Department, oversees nationally chartered banks.
The spate of recently announced bank mergers, including the planned union between banking giant Citicorp and brokerage-insurer Travelers Group Inc., put financial reform back on the congressional agenda. Without the bill, such mergers are in jeopardy. Citicorp and Travelers can operate in unison for two years under current laws before the duo would be required to sell off either its banking or insurance divisions.
Industry insiders say that's why Travelers Group and its executives have given more than $99,000 in contributions toward Mr. D'Amato's re-election campaign - and are his fourth-largest benefactor. Of Mr. D'Amato's top 20 contributors, 15 are banks, brokerages or insurers.
"Wall Street is especially known for executive contributions. It's a way of maximizing influence," Ms. Schecter said.
By law, any organization that wants to donate money to a candidate has to do so through a political action committee. PACs are limited to a $10,000 per candidate per election cycle. Individuals are also limited, to $2,000 per candidate per election. But there is no limit on how many employees can donate …