The Backstory: Gary Rivlin

Rivlin discusses his investigation into the behind-the-scenes maneuvering in Washington that threatens to undo important reforms.

Investigative Fund fellow Gary Rivlin has had a long and varied reporting career, with beats ranging from Chicago politics in the 1980s, to youth violence in the 1990s, to the tech industry (for the New York Times) in the 2000s. He has written five books, most recently BROKE, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. — How the Working Poor Became Big Business. In this Backstory, Rivlin discusses his investigation into the behind-the-scenes maneuvering in Washington that threatens to undo important reforms like the Dodd-Frank Act in spite of broad public support, congressional approval, and the best efforts of the people working to defend them. — Laura Cremer

Laura Cremer: Thanks for being with us here today, Gary. Most of your work for the Investigative Fund so far has focused on the finance industry and its ability to block or even hijack attempts at financial reform — and in particular on the fight around the Dodd-Frank Act. You’ve covered a wide variety of subjects in the past, so I’m curious: how did you get started doing this kind of reporting in particular?

Gary Rivlin: It was interesting, back in 2007-2008, the start of the subprime meltdown, I was doing a lot of reporting on the subprime fringes, whether people who got ensnared by destructive, exploitative subprime mortgages or subprime auto loans or payday lending: I was hanging out in that corner of the financial universe, and suddenly Dodd-Frank is coming — or the bill that would eventually be called Dodd-Frank was coming — down the pike, and all the people I’m talking to, the consumer advocates, those representing those who had gotten taken, were obviously paying a lot of attention to it, and it was really interesting, because they were really excited. They thought the kinds of things that were in Dodd-Frank were the things that they were looking for for the past decade. There have been people who were fighting subprime mortgage abuse going back to the late 1990s, the early 1990s, talking about some basic reforms, and those reforms were actually proposed for Dodd-Frank, and then they were amazed, because right before passage it got even tougher: the issues they wanted to see, the consumer advocates wanted to see, in Dodd-Frank got strengthened, so I felt like, “Wow, this is this amazing piece of news—sometimes Washington may even work,” that maybe a positive piece of legislation came through, but then I started hearing people complaining, and that’s where we got to the other half of the Dodd-Frank story that I really wanted to take on for the Investigative Fund.

Cremer: My sense has been in your pieces about this topic, about finance and government regulation and specifically Dodd-Frank, you have the unique challenge of constructing compelling narratives around information that may not necessarily be secret or something the public can’t access, strictly speaking, but which I think a lot of people find it hard to navigate or make comprehensible to themselves on their own and sometimes can just write off as part this political system that’s very Byzantine and opaque and not something that is ever going to be worth trying figure out: How do you approach this specific problem? Does you feel like it calls for a unique or different kind of reporting than other stories you’ve done?

Rivlin: Right — it’s true that there’s some investigative stories where the challenge is unearthing the hidden documents, getting stuff that at first glance might seem ungettable. This is the opposite. It’s all out there — it’s just painstaking, it’s just tedious to have to go through. They report (some agencies report) every single time a lobbyist, an industry, anybody comes from the outside to meet with them. They report it, but that’s a new challenge in our data-rich age: you still have to be able to sort through it, so I spent days going over the logs of the various federal agencies. I guess I had one advantage… Dodd-Frank is a tough subject. Financial reform — people’s eyes glaze over. You’re talking about derivatives reform — it’s even hard to explain what the Volker Rule is. It’s a very challenging area — but I thought I had a very simple story to tell: the unmaking of Dodd-Frank. “I’m going to start off with the assumption that this was a reasonably good piece of legislation, and clearly banks were unhappy, financial institutions were unhappy, that it passed. Let me tell the story of their efforts to try to water it down, undo it if not do it in completely.” And it really was, at its heart, a simple story, and the thing I found out: I did an interview with a lobbyist with one of the big financial trade associations, and he called it… he referred to the “second half of the Dodd-Frank fight.” Most of us think that when a piece of legislation passes, that’s the end of the fight, and then we just have to implement the thing. But the financial institutions understood that it’s a lot more complicated than that, that they could lose on the legislative front but win among regulators, they could lose on the legislative front but win in the courts, they could lost on the legislative front but maybe convince some legislators after the fact to undo what they had just passed. So that’s what I wanted to pay attention to — and, you know, financial disclosures: how much various members of the House or Senate get from financial institutions. Again, it’s all there, and you have places like, they’ve done some accumulating of the stats, but it’s still painstaking, where you’re spending days going bank by bank, financial institution by financial institution, trade association by trade association, trying to track the money, what went to what lobbyist, what went to what politicians, and you eventually, I hope, get to a compelling narrative, but there’s a lot of dull work in between.

Cremer: What would you say ends up being the bulk of your reporting, what do you spend the most time on, doing stories like this? And (this might be a different answer) what is the most difficult part? Because I could imagine it either being trying to get access to certain kinds of materials or maybe that some of these sources don’t want to talk to you — or is it something else?

Rivlin: Right, so, again, in this particular story, access to most materials was not the problem. Yes, there were a few documents here and there that I had to get somebody inside to share with me, because it was meant as an internal, strategic memo — that kind of thing. But in this case, it wasn’t access to the materials — it was access to the people. Because, again, Dodd-Frank, financial reform, derivatives reform: the world economy was practically brought down by manipulation of derivatives, but what is a derivative? It’s even hard to define, so what I really tried to do (and this was the challenge in this story) is try to have a narrative, try to have a human face on it. So, I approached the various departments that are in charge of implementing Dodd-Frank, and there just a seemed to be a really compelling story in … the CFTC, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission. Getting them to let me spend time with the commissioner, a very busy guy, he’s trying to reform the 700 trillion dollar derivatives reform — excuse me, he’s trying to reform the 700 trillion dollar derivatives market… Getting him to share their story, because they did have an incredible story. Their view was, “We’re going to let anybody in the world, whether it’s a union or a pro-consumer group or Goldman Sachs: we’re going to let them have access and sit down and tell us what they think,” and on the surface that seems fair, but the fact is that Goldman Sachs had 60-some-odd lobbyists and teams of lawyers to go over every single rule, whereas the Consumer Federation of America, they had a single full-time lobbyist and no support staff to help her. So, some of it was just trying to show the imbalance — that you’ve got a couple of millions in lobbying money on one side, and you’ve got hundreds of millions on the other side. You have armies of people working to water down Dodd-Frank, where you had a few dedicated souls working to defend it. So the challenge, I thought, was trying to find the way to dramatize that story.

Cremer: Another thing I think is striking about your stories around this issue is that they involve talking to people who are very actively trying to spin things in a way that may be opposed to the angle from which you’re reporting — and, you know, they’re paid to do this, of course: they’re lobbyists.

Rivlin: And they’re good at it, they’re very good at it, by the way!

Cremer: So, is that a challenge you have to deal with? And do you worry about being subject to some of the same dangers that regulators face when they’re trying to evaluate these issues, and then they have this army of people who are really good at trying to spin it in this certain way?

Rivlin: Yeah, that’s a really insightful question, because the thing about a story like this that… The people on the other side, the lobbyists on the other side are pretty open to talking, except for, they don’t say, “Here’s the way I’m trying to water down Dodd-Frank, here’s the way I’m trying to prevent a strong Dodd-Frank from being enacted.” They talk about (like they do with the regulators: they’ll do the same with the press, they did the same with me) “Here’s how we’re trying to improve it. You see, we also believe there needs to be financial reform,” they say. “Except for, we understand the technicalities, and so we’re going to help you make it workable.” And yeah, I mean, I kind of feel like this happens on a lot of stories, where I have a head of steam, and I have a point of view in my head, and then I’m talking with people who question it, and, you know, I might struggle for a time, like, “Huh, maybe they have a point about this, maybe they have a point about that,” but that just tells me I have to do more reporting and figure out, well, “Do they have a point or not?” And, you know, you drill down, and one of the ways they’re trying to “improve” Dodd-Frank is carve it out so the investment banks with overseas offices, which is to say every single one of them that’s big, those overseas offices wouldn’t have to abide by U.S. Dodd-Frank laws, which is absurd! I mean, like, “Oh, ok, so we’ll just move our entire derivatives action off shore,” because that way they won’t have to abide by the strictures imposed by Dodd-Frank, so some of the ways they were trying to fix it, when I would get down and go into the nitty-gritty weren’t fixes but, you know, giant loopholes. But, you know, I actually thought that was a healthy part of the reporting process. You know, you have your information, you have a clear narrative in your head, but then you test out your thesis, you go talk to other people, and it’s not quite as black and white, it’s not as clear as it is in your head, but sometimes it helps you get to a better story

Cremer: This is a related question. Your work, your reporting on this issue, includes a lot of very vividly-realized characters, and I think your readers often get to hear directly even from the ones that may end up seeming like the “villains” of the piece: the lobbyists, the representatives of the banks. My sense was that you don’t seem restricted by the kind of specious idea of impartiality that insists on presenting each “side’s” description of what’s happening as an equally valid representation of facts, and you can be openly critical of the role of the big banks and other corporations in your pieces, so that made me curious about how you think about the importance of including the voices of these lobbyists and similar figures in your work, their quotes. Do you conceive of that as something that’s demanded of you in the name of responsible reporting, a kind of general duty to let people hear all sides, or do you think it serves a different function?

Rivlin: Yeah, I do think it’s part of doing journalism to give all sides their say. I mean, I feel like what I owe all sides is: I include their point of view in the story, I give them their say. That doesn’t mean my story has to agree or be impartial to what they say, but I just feel like that is our job as journalists, or at least the kind of journalism I’m trying to do here, where I’m reporting on a policy issue, where I’m reporting on something where there’s all sorts of sides, all sorts of disagreement. I want to capture all that disagreement, but I don’t want to just leave it up to the reader like, “Ok, here’s a mess of opinions: you make up your mind!” Because there’s some things you can sort through. You can hear the consumer advocate groups say, “Hey, we’re outgunned!” Then I’m like, “Ok, well, every single lobbying group has to list its spending, so let me compare those on the consumer side to the banks’ side”… and they were! It was like… I can’t remember exactly, but the spending was like 100 to one! You know, the number of lobbyists on this side — again, what’s amazing about this era we’re in is you could count the exact number of lobbyists who are on the payroll for a Goldman Sachs or a Consumer Federation of America and compare it. So to me, I took what both sides said, because the banking side, the financial side, will say, “Hey wait, they’re spending; they have lobbyists on their side; they have their seat at the table.” Ok, but it’s a little more complicated than that: you have a hundred seats at that table — they’ve got one!

Cremer: What has been the most revelatory for you personally in reporting on this issue? What have you uncovered that has been most surprising to you about the financial system or political system?

Rivlin: Well, the first shock on this story is how much money has been spent following the passage of Dodd-Frank compared to how much money was spent in the months leading up to passage of Dodd-Frank. The story of the passage of Dodd-Frank was the record amount of money, like a billion dollars, some huge number like that in a barely-a-year period, that was spent to try to defeat financial reform in the U.S. Congress. What’s amazing to me is that I compared the spending in the months leading up to Dodd-Frank to the spending after Dodd-Frank: the big banks were spending more money after passage to fight it than before. The fight now, the fight to thwart meaningful regulation, is actually a bigger fight than the legislative fight. To most of us, the legislative fight is the fight. To the banks, that was, in retrospect, the slightly less important part of it. Meaning the amount of resources they’ve spent to undo it has been greater than the resources spent to prevent it from happening in the first place. And then there’s some smaller insights: I never quite understood the importance to a member of Congress of an appointment to the House Financial Services committee. It’s a fundraising committee. You’re a freshman put on this committee: They choose freshman — both parties, Republicans and Democrats, choose freshman who are in tough elections, like they won by the skin of their teeth, they’re going to face a hard reelection — they put them on that committee because they know that just being on the committee you get an extra few hundred thousand dollars in campaign contributions, you know, from the American Bankers Association, the Community Bankers, and all these kinds of organizations. I learned a new phrase. I had never heard this before: a “fundraising bill.” And what people mean by that is: it’s a bill that a member of the House or Senate is going to introduce, when everyone knows it’s not going to go anywhere, except for the banks or whatever industry wants to see that bill pass. So they’ll introduce it, they’ll happily put their name on it, and suddenly they’ll get all these contributions from the industry that they’re making happy, even though that bill is never going to pass.

Cremer: Are there things that you would have liked to include in this story or in these kinds of stories that you find it difficult to get people to talk on the record about, or that you find it difficult to get documents to prove, or in general that you have to leave out for one reason or another?

Rivlin: Yeah, so, in this story, there’s many big buckets. There’s derivatives reform, which is its own world. There’s stock reforms, trading reforms that come down to the SEC. You’ve got “Too Big to Fail,” which involves the FTIC and the feds. So, it’s a sweeping piece of legislation. It touches a lot of areas. I actually wanted to focus more, early on, on the SEC, but they were such a bureaucracy that getting to talk to anyone there, getting them to be honest with me, open with me, about their frustrations — that wasn’t going anywhere. And that’s what I got, I think, from the CFTC, the Commodities Future Trading Commission, that I wasn’t getting from the SEC: an expression of their frustrations with the steps they’re having to go through just to implement a piece of legislation that Congress had passed, and the president had signed.

Cremer: My final question will be more general, I guess. Do you have thoughts about what the media as a whole, or investigative reporters specifically, should be doing or could be doing right now, given the current political situation? Specifically, do you think focusing on making this sort of legislative process that can be obscure to people legible to “regular” people, to voters, is an important area of focus, or should we be focusing on trying to influence people in positions of power and how they perceive these things, or is there another you would think about it?

Rivlin: Well, for journalists, my head doesn’t go to, “How do we influence people in power?” It’s just: how do we shine a spotlight on areas that are not getting enough attention, if not no attention? And you mention the legislative process, but in a way there’s a lot of coverage there. What I’m talking about is the regulatory process, that just because the bill is passed doesn’t mean the fight is over yet. In the media’s eyes, largely it is over, even though there’s another round to the fighting that arguably is more interesting than the legislative fight. So I do wish, especially based on this experience, that there was much more attention paid to the making of the sausage after the House and Senate are done making their sausage: there’s still a second sausage-making process that needs a lot more people paying attention. It’s an interesting story; there’s a lot of money at stake; the issues are often very important — it has all the makings for what could be journalism that a lot of people pay attention to, but it’s an area that has not gotten very much attention.

Cremer: Ok great, thank you for talking to us.

Rivlin: Thank you.

This interview has been edited.

About the reporter

Gary Rivlin

Gary Rivlin

Long-time journalist Gary Rivlin is a reporter with Type Investigations.