Maxine Waters has settled into her new job. This term, the L.A. Congresswoman became the ranking Democrat on the powerful House Financial Services Committee. The appointment came after a three-year fight to clear her name on banking-related ethics charges.
Waters waited a long time for the position — 22 years. She says when she first came to Congress, "People were fleeing the old banking committee because of the [savings-and-loan] scandal and nobody wanted it."
Waters notes: "I stayed, I worked, I've learned, and I've earned the seniority."
With Republicans in charge of the House, Waters admits her ability to get things done is limited. But she still has a to-do list: reform of the quasi-governmental mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, boosting construction of residential rental property, and defending the landmark financial oversight law known as Dodd Frank.
Waters says the resistance isn't just from Republicans. She says banks are pushing back on Dodd Frank by making it tough for consumers to get loans and mortgages, "because they want to show us that we've got to work with them."
Marcus Stanley, policy director for the watchdog group Americans for Financial Reform, says Waters is under "a lot of lobbying pressure from some very powerful and big money interests" that want her to support bills that Wall Street favors.
Stanley says the top Democrat on Financial Services plays an important role for bills that Wall Street wants to see passed: " The feeling is that if she supports them, it's going to be easier to pass them into law, to get them through the Senate, and to get the President approving them."
That lobbying pressure from Wall Street comes with campaign cash. In the 2010 election cycle, Waters received nearly $60,000 in campaign contributions from the finance, insurance, and real estate sector. Last year, those industry contributions more than tripled.
So far, Stanley says, Waters has withstood industry pressure and voted against several bills in the past couple of weeks that would have weakened Dodd Frank.
Many doubted that Waters would even remain in Congress, let alone rise to leadership on Financial Services. After the banking meltdown in 2008, the L.A. Democrat was accused of using her committee clout to help a minority-owned bank in which her husband owned stock.
A meltdown within the House Ethics Committee itself strung out the investigation for three years. But finally, in late 2012, the committee cleared Waters of any wrongdoing. Waters says she was never frightened, never felt like a victim: "I was in control because I knew that I had not violated anything. And so I knew that I would be vindicated. I just didn't know when."
Waters says it's corny, but she got into politics believing she could help people. Growing up in a family of 13, she saw how a lack of access to jobs and resources hurts people. Serving on Financial Services, she's dealt with Wall Street, where big decisions are made that affect people further down the financial ladder.
"If I can translate what I've learned and what I'm seeing," Waters says, "that will create some fairness for people, that's what drives me."
Waters gets high marks from Angela Canterbury from the Project on Government Oversight for trying to address revolving door issues at the Securities and Exchange Commission and protections for whistle-blowers.
"I would say she's been absolutely terrific," Canterbury says. But she notes Financial Services is one of those committees where political polarization can create a standoff between Democrats and Republicans. So far, Canterbury says she's seen real collegial work between Waters and the GOP chairman of the committee, Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling.
"When they disagree," says Canterbury, "she's been standing up for her principles."
Waters says, contrary to expectations, she's getting along just fine with Hensarling. They're even working together on a bi-partisan bill to help community banks.