U.S. Rep. Mel Watt was running late.
As his fellow members of the House Financial Services Committee prepared to fire questions at JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon over risky trades, Watt was in a meeting in another part of the House office building.
By the time he made it to the hearing room, hed missed his chance to get in the questioning queue.
He left early, without speaking.
Watt, who played a primary role in crafting the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, has retreated into the background on banking issues since the law passed in July 2010.
At a time when banks have found themselves in political firestorms, Watt has made fewer floor speeches on banking and introduced fewer bills on the subject. And he hasnt issued a single public statement on banking in the two years since Dodd-Frank passed.
Watt told the Observer that this was a conscious decision and a result of the committees polarization since Republicans captured control of the House.
Instead, Watt said hes been focusing his attention on another panel he sits on, the House Judiciary Committee.
We really havent done anything in financial services of substance, Watt said. We had a bunch of hearings that led nowhere.
But his reduced activity on banking also reflects the sensitive position of a Democratic lawmaker representing Charlotte.
Throughout his career, Watt has had to walk the line between the more liberal portion of his constituency and the banks and bankers that also make up a large part of it. Bank of America Corp. is headquartered in the heart of his district, and has about 15,000 employees around the city.
Commercial banks have also been among Watts largest donors, with more than $365,000 from the industry over his career, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
In the past two years, that balance has become trickier as big banks have become a target for congressional Democrats, who have sought tougher regulations for the financial services industry.
Watt has not joined his colleagues in the House and Senate in sharply criticizing banks or their executives. And while he has joined with Democrats on some regulatory pushes, hes been absent in others.
He is neither a champion nor a source of frustration. He is not somebody that we count on to lead the charge, said Bartlett Naylor, financial policy advocate for consumer group Public Citizen, which is pushing for a breakup of the nations largest banks and a stronger Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
We appreciate that Mel Watt represents thousands of constituents who work for Bank of America, Naylor said. And that complicates his responsibility to ensure that Bank of America does not jeopardize the health of the nation and also represent the thousands of people who work for the bank.
An unsung hero
Watt, who is seeking an 11th term in an oddly shaped district that roughly follows Interstate 85 from Charlotte to Greensboro, was assigned to what is now the House Financial Services Committee when he first joined Congress in 1993. Hes become one of the most senior Democrats on the committee.
In the last congressional session, he played a large role in developing Dodd-Frank, becoming known as an effective leader on the sprawling laws consumer protection and mortgage components, including a provision targeting predatory lending.
Then-Assistant Treasury Secretary Michael Barr called him an unsung hero in Dodd-Franks passage during a speech to the Charlotte Chamber in August 2010.
But in the November 2010 elections, Republicans took control of the House. It was then, Watt said, that he decided to focus more attention on the judiciary committee and took on the role as ranking member on the intellectual property subcommittee.
Through that work, Watt helped pass a bipartisan overhaul of the patent system in 2011, streamlining the application process and cutting down on frivolous litigation.
This year, he was one of the proponents of the Stop Online Piracy Act, which took aim at copyright violations. The bill was killed after it drew the ire of heavy Internet users and companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia.
Television comedian Jon Stewart ridiculed Watt and other members of his intellectual property subcommittee, saying they didnt have any idea what the bill they were discussing meant.
Watt: 'They are not listening'
Watt said that work was much more meaningful than a greater contribution to the financial services committee would have been. He called the latter committees work largely political posturing.
For hearings, what difference does it make if Im there or not? he said. Its not leading to any new legislation. It was all for show.
Watt told his colleagues as much last June in a speech on the House floor about derivatives regulations. He admitted to rarely coming to the floor to debate and that he has been asked whether he had lost his passion.
I find that most of the time, my colleagues on the opposite side are tone deaf, Watt said in the speech. They are not really listening to what anybody is saying to them. They are off on some radical right undertaking, falling off the right edge of the Earth, and they are not listening to anything I say.
A House Republican aide, who asked to remain anonymous to speak candidly, said it is bogus to blame Republicans.
The difference between the parties is sharper than it used to be, the aide said. But to claim that were more partisan or dont let the Democrats participate isnt true at all.
And when pressed, Watt acknowledges that Democrats have done their share of politicization themselves. Particularly last fall, when Bank of America said it would introduce a $5 debit card fee, some members of the House and Senate urged Americans to take their money out of large banks.
You never saw me out there doing that, you know? Watt said.
He also said last weeks Dimon hearing was largely a political maneuver by his fellow Democrats. The JPMorgan CEO faced pointed questions about the banks losses from trading with federally insured deposit money.
I was kind of happy I didnt have to be there to be a party to that, Watt said.
Walking a fine line
A banking industry lobbyist who asked not to be named, to preserve relationships, said Watts low-key role is the best thing he could do for the banks in the current environment. The lobbyist said its in keeping with Watts history as a Democrat more sympathetic to the financial industry than many of his peers.
Banks arent popular right now, the lobbyist said. His neutrality or silence is the best that we can hope for.
Thats not to say Watt has completely disengaged from banking.
A fellow Democrat on the financial services committee, U.S. Rep. Brad Miller of Raleigh, said Watt has remained involved in the committees debates and he has asked questions at a number of hearings.
Watt also joined other Democrats in signing a dissent against a bill that would exempt U.S. banks from regulation on their overseas swap trading.
But hes been largely silent on the still-pending Volcker Rule, which would restrict banks from trading with their own money, Naylor of Public Citizen said.
Either way, Watt said he does not think his lower-key role on banking issues conflicts with his duty to represent the thousands of employees who work for financial institutions in the countrys second-largest banking center.
I dont think Im shortchanging anybody because I have a lot of bank employees (as constituents), he said. I have a lot of people who are affected by intellectual property issues, too.