In hindsight, ex-President Bill Clinton says there's one thing he would have done differently to regulate Wall Street: He would have let Congress shut down the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Clinton -- who also called President Bush's 2001 tax cut "nuts" -- said Tuesday that the shutdown strategy might have enabled his administration to gain public support for SEC proposals to limit the ability of auditors to do additional consulting for their clients, just as the federal government shutdown helped him win a budget battle earlier in his administration.
"That's the one thing I regret," said Clinton, referring to the compromise reached after legislators threatened to gut the SEC in response to then-SEC chief Arthur Levitt's campaign to rein in public company auditors. "I think I missed an opportunity there to say, 'Please do it.' "
Speaking at a Conference Board gathering in New York entitled "Progress Report on Restoring Trust in Corporations and America's Financial Markets," Clinton minimized his administration's role in ethical lapses at companies such as
, while criticizing the current administration for its own economic policies.
"I don't think that anyone in the White House knew the extent of earnings overstatement, or could have known," said Clinton.
His administration did believe, however, that financial regulations in place at the time were inadequate, motivating regulatory efforts of Levitt and then-Treasury Secretary Larry Summers. "Levitt was aggressive," said Clinton. "Summers was aggressive. We got beat."
Clinton placed most of the fault for reform-blocking and scandal-enabling on Republican legislators, particularly Sen. Phil Gramm, former chairman of the Senate Banking Committee.
But, he said, the blame goes even wider. "Ultimately, the American people have to take some responsibility for it
electing or re-electing the lawmakers who prevented reforms," said Clinton.
Asked about Bush's economic policies, Clinton said he would scrap the current tax cut and put a ceiling on the tax breaks passed in 2001. In their place, said Clinton, he would have lower-income tax breaks that would phase out in two years. As for specific corporate governance reforms, Clinton said he supported more timely disclosures of executive stock sales and "real-time" financial statements released simultaneously with earnings press releases.
The Republican-led economic boom of the 1980s, said Clinton, wasn't really a boom, since it was based on a quadrupling of the federal deficit. "You give me 300, 400 billion dollars a year, I'll show you a good time, too," he said.