POLITICS
06/15/2010 11:38 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Rep. John Campbell Accuses Himself Of 'Blatant Conflict Of Interest'

John Campbell is, apparently, a straight shooter. Instead of ducking criticism for simultaneously collecting rent from car dealerships while pushing to exempt auto dealers from consumer protection regulation, Campbell, a Republican from Southern California, has confronted the issue head-on. Either that, or someone on his staff doesn't take the time to read articles about him before they post them to his website.

An article currently on his official congressional website -- and available here in perpetuity -- is headlined: "Rep. Campbell's Amendment to Consumer Legislation a Blatant Conflict of Interest - Reuters."

The subhead isn't much nicer: "California congressman, and former auto dealer, offers amendment that would benefit donors and his own tenants at six different properties."

Campbell's auto dealer amendment passed the House Financial Services Committee and became part of the final House Wall Street reform bill. The amendment exempts auto dealers from the purview of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency.

This carveout is now hotly contested, as the Senate bill does not contain a similar exemption. Last week, Elizabeth Warren -- often talked about as a potential first head of the future agency -- pressed a closed-door meeting of the House Democratic caucus not to allow the carveout to make it into the final bill.

Though the article is identified as written by Reuters on Campbell's website, it appears to have been produced by the consumer advocacy organization Common Cause, which has battled Campbell's carveout. "Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.), whose official congressional website touts his work in the auto industry for over 25 years, introduced an amendment to the Consumer Financial Protection Agency Act of 2009 that would exclude car dealerships from oversight as outlined in the bill - including six tenants that paid Campbell between $600,000 and $6 million last year in rent, according to the congressman's own personal financial disclosure forms," reads the article. "The relationship with the auto dealing industry goes even deeper. Rep. Campbell has taken more than $170,000 in campaign contributions from auto dealers during his congressional career, according to the Center for Responsive Politics."

Campbell's auto dealer exemption was a case study in how K Street pokes holes in reform legislation. HuffPost recounted the scene of its passage as part of a report about how Wall Street wins on Capitol Hill.

The question was simple: Should the lending practices of auto dealers be regulated?

It was already October and the 42 Democrats and 29 Republicans on the House Committee on Financial Services had spent the better part of the year hashing out the details of a new federal agency dedicated to protecting consumers from dangerous and deceptive financial products.

Auto dealers seemed like an obvious target for the new agency; nearly every time someone buys a car, the dealer also sells them an auto loan, complete with promises like zero per cent interest and a pile of cash back. Americans hold some $850 billion in car debt and dealers are responsible for marketing roughly four-fifths of that amount. They pocket lucrative commissions with little oversight, and the committee seemed poised to change that.

Enter Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.), a former Saab dealer from Orange County, who according to his latest financial disclosure statement still collects rent from some of his former auto dealer colleagues. Campbell downplayed the importance of his industry partners and proposed an amendment to the bill exempting dealers from the new agency's purview. On October 22, it came up for a vote.

As usual, the members filed into the high-ceilinged first-floor hearing room in the Rayburn House Office Building. Committee Chairman Barney Frank oversaw the vote atop four tiered rows of seats, a full story above the witnesses and the audience. The longest-serving Democratic members of the panel -- informally known as the banking committee -- sat to the right or just below the chairman; it can take years, if not decades, for a freshman representative to ascend up the risers.

The clerk called the roll, starting from the top. Senior Democrats roundly rejected Campbell's amendment. It appeared as if the Democrats would beat back the effort and apply the same standard to car dealers that was applied to everyone else.

Then came the bottom two rows, the place where reform goes to die. Despite the disapproval of the powerful chairman and nearly every consumer group in the country, the Campbell amendment passed by a 47-21 margin.

A video of the vote on Campbell's amendment shows how the auto dealers won their victory. It's both serious and comical. After the senior committee members enter their no votes, the bottom two rows begin weighing in with yes after yes after yes -- followed by unanimous ayes from the GOP side.

Then, once it becomes clear that auto dealers are getting their way, those senior Democrats -- not wanting to get on the bad side of a powerful industry for a losing cause -- actually start switching their votes from no to yes.

As confusion spreads and more votes are changed, Frank tweaks his colleagues with a subtle dig. "Can I ask this? Would members please vote loudly, especially if you plan to vote differently than the clerk anticipates?" The chamber echoes with laughter.

Pretending that there is some mistake, several members ask the clerk how they were recorded before asking to switch their votes. After Rep. Dennis Moore (D-Kan.), a senior New Dem and a subcommittee chairman, employs this technique, Frank puts a stop to it. "I would also say, at the same time, if you know how you're recorded, don't ask the clerk. Just change your vote," he says. This time, there is no laughter.