The next time you make a withdrawal from an automated teller machine, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner might be watching over your shoulder. Boosted by the sweeping, 1,400-page financial regulatory proposal currently making its way through the Senate, Mr. Geithner would have unprecedented, real-time access to a wealth of personal and corporate financial data - all in the name of protecting the public.
The legislation, sponsored by Senate banking committee Chairman Christopher J. Dodd, would create the innocuously named Office of Financial Research as a central repository for transaction-related records held by financial companies. According to proponents, "decision-makers" like Mr. Geithner need up-to-the-minute information to act in order to prevent what they refer to as another Wall Street meltdown. The proposed agency would also provide statistical analysis and research, purportedly to monitor systemic risk to the financial system.
The idea raises a number of red flags, not least of which is the plan's fundamentally flawed premise that a central committee of unelected bureaucrats would be qualified to judge what's right and what's wrong for the economy. Our economic woes of the past three years would not have been solved had Treasury officials been armed with crisper charts and more accurate PowerPoint slides.
Yet the details of the proposal show that this new agency's mission is not meant to be limited to improving the quality of financial data. Mr. Dodd's legislation would grant the agency director the coercive power of subpoena to obtain records and rulemaking authority to force private-sector firms to maintain their internal financial records in a format acceptable to the government. The legislation also grants sweeping authority to maintain a data center that would collect and maintain "all data necessary" to carry out the director's wishes. Needless to say, the government's history of losing hard drives and laptops filled with sensitive information suggests entrusting more to a federal agency is not a smart idea.
Of more concern is how the proposed law treats government employees with legal access to this gold mine of information. Bureaucrats would be allowed to exploit their knowledge of market conditions as private-sector consultants one year after leaving the agency. Not only would individuals who had such privileged access to confidential information command a high price in the private sector, they also would be equally rewarded while employed at public expense.
The already generous limitations of the general schedule of salaries and benefits would not apply to the Office of Financial Research. The agency's director could pay salaries in excess of $200,000 a year to as many bureaucrats as he saw fit to hire. Indeed, the law sets up a semi-independent fiefdom where the agency director would set his own budget by imposing taxes on large financial firms and not have to answer directly to any elected officials.
There's no telling how much a multimillion-dollar boondoggle of this magnitude might end up costing in monetary terms, but it's enough to know the price in the loss of financial privacy and freedom is too great. The Senate should vote down this intrusive and wasteful bureaucracy.