WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. House Democrats introduced legislation on Wednesday to direct banking regulators to review operations at the country's largest banks and consider shutting them down if they exhibit repeated wrongdoing to consumers.
The bill, likely to meet stiff opposition from the Republican majority in Congress, represents the most direct threat yet from policymakers eager to see the nation's biggest banks, including Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase, broken up.
"It is clear steeper penalties need to be used when a megabank demonstrates a pattern of consumer abuse," said Representative Maxine Waters, a lead sponsor of the bill and the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee.
Deficiencies in processing customer complaints, servicing residential mortgages, as well as engaging in deceptive business practices or opening unauthorized accounts could all be deemed harmful to consumers under the bill, opening banks up to significant regulatory action.
Eight Democrats, led by Waters, introduced the legislation on Wednesday. If signed into law, the bill would require federal banking regulators to review every U.S. bank identified as a "global systemically important bank" within 90 days. Specifically, regulators would need to determine if the banks have exhibited "repeated law violations that harmed consumers," as defined by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, another federal regulator.
The bill puts pressure directly on banking regulators, who Democrats argue are not utilizing all their tools to curb what they see as bad behavior in the banking sector. Democrats in Congress are frequently critical of the banking sector, but this new legislation represents the most direct attempt by lawmakers to significantly curb big banks.
If any banks are found to be repeat offenders, regulators would have 120 days to begin winding the institution down and barring its executives from the financial industry, using their existing powers.
And large bank executives would be required to attest annually they have reviewed all lines of bank business and are compliant with consumer protection laws. Executives would also face heightened civil and criminal liability under the bill.
Lawmakers backing the bill identified several banks they believe should face such a comprehensive review and possible dissolution, including Wells Fargo, JPMorgan, Bank of America, and Citigroup.
One week earlier, Waters released a report claiming Wells Fargo has shown a "pattern of abusive business practices," making clear, and reiterated her belief the bank should be broken up.
Spokespeople for those banks either declined to comment on Waters's bill or did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The new bill is also the latest step Democrats have taken to increase pressure on banking regulators, who they believe are not taking a sufficiently harsh stance with the industry. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has repeatedly pressed the Federal Reserve to remove members of Wells's board of directors who were in that role when bank employees created potentially millions of fake customer accounts. Warren has not signed on to the new legislation.
(Reporting by Pete Schroeder; editing by Diane Craft)