U.S. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson, who has done most of his work away from the spotlight the past five years, won’t escape the glare of the TV lights when he takes the gavel to question JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon about $2 billion in trading losses.
Johnson will convene and conduct the high-profile Capitol Hill hearing on Wednesday in which Dimon faces grilling over why his bank conducted high-risk trading activities out of its chief investment office. Johnson aides and allies say, however, that the chairman prefers to stay above the fray.
“He doesn’t try to demagogue or show horse or come out with an arm-flailing statement to attract the attention of the cameras,” former Senator Christopher Dodd, Johnson’s predecessor as the panel’s chairman and a colleague for 13 years, said in an interview.
It also may be a wise strategy for the South Dakota Democrat who faces some of his own challenges, some physical, some political.
Johnson, 65, is still working to recover from the bursting of a blood vessel in his brain in 2006, which has slowed and slurred his speech. The last time he faced such a barrage of media attention, he was standing on the Senate floor in front of more than 80 of his colleagues, many in tears, as he gave his first speech in the chamber less than a year after suffering the intracerebral bleed.
‘Not 100 Percent’’
“It must already be clear to you that my speech is not 100 percent,” Johnson said then. “The doctors tell me that it will get there, but my thoughts are clear and my mind is sharp and I’m here to be a voice for South Dakota in the Senate.”
Since then, Johnson has learned to navigate the halls and tunnels of Capitol Hill on a motorized scooter. Since taking over as banking committee chairman last year, he has learned to navigate the Hill’s political landscape, amassing what Dodd, now chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, described as an impressive record in a Congress often paralyzed by bipartisan strife.
Johnson has shepherded the Senate confirmation of 30 of the 36 nominees sent to him by President Barack Obama, including two Federal Reserve governors, the comptroller of the currency and two Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. directors. He’s pushed through his committee unanimous reauthorizations of the National Flood Insurance Program, the Export-Import bank, federal surface transportation program and tighter economic sanctions on Iran.
And he has played defense on the Dodd-Frank Act, the overhaul of financial regulations which passed largely along party lines in 2010. Johnson said he is reluctant to make changes out of concern that opponents would use it as an opportunity to repeal large portions of the law.
“There have been some isolated, specific things that have come along where we are willing to open the bill, but we must be very careful,” Johnson said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office.
Johnson has also had to battle perceptions that he himself is too cozy with financial interests. The heavy presence of credit-card companies in his state has opened him to criticism that he is anti-consumer -- one reason he has defended Richard Cordray, the new director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau which was created by the Dodd-Frank law.
“The assumption was that I’d be in the pocket of the credit card industry, yet I’ve supported Cordray and the consumer bureau all down the line,” Johnson said.
More to the point this week, there has been a revolving door between his Capitol Hill office and JPMorgan. His former staff director, Naomi Gendler Camper, is a lobbyist in the bank’s Washington office. Dwight Fettig, his current committee staff director, returned to the Senator’s team after seven years away that included a stint as an outside lobbyist for JPMorgan, according to federal disclosures.
The staff relationship hasn’t transferred to political contributions since Johnson became chairman, however. Johnson, who is up for re-election in 2014, has not received any money from the bank’s political action committee since he took over as chairman, and only $1,000 since he won his third Senate term in 2008.
The total marks a shift from previous years, when the bank’s political action committee and employees combined to be one of Johnson’s top donors. The bank’s PAC contributed $10,000 to the lawmaker during his last six-year campaign cycle and its employees contributed more than $48,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Johnson aides say another factor is at work in the revolving door: loyalty. In a city known for its transience, a majority of the senator’s staff have worked for him for more than five years. When Johnson became chairman, there was little question that Fettig, who spent more than a decade in various roles for Johnson including more eight years as his legislative director, would come back to Capitol Hill. Johnson’s chief of staff, Drey Samuelson, has been with the lawmaker since his first campaign for the Congress in 1986.
Everyone in the office calls the lawmaker by his first name, as do his constituents in South Dakota. Johnson’s wife Barbara dispatches baby advice to employees with children. Staffers joke about how many crockpots they own, required equipment for the many office potlucks the couple hosts in their home.
At a reception hosted by community bankers in Sioux Falls earlier this year, Geri Beck, the executive director at the Independent Community Bankers of South Dakota, said she expected a polite, social event for Johnson. Shortly after arriving however, Johnson had the bankers, many of whom had concerns about the 2010 overhaul law, gathered around him in a semi-circle, asking questions about their problems and concerns.
“There are always people who say he can do more, but we feel like he hears us,” Beck said. “We’re proud to have someone from South Dakota” in such a high-ranking position.