Sen. Elizabeth Warren had a confounding exchange with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin at a Senate Banking Committee hearing today. Mnuchin indicated that the Trump administration supports a 21st century version of the Glass-Steagall Act, except for the part about separating commercial and investment banks, which is substantially what is meant by Glass-Steagall.

Warren wasn’t having it.

Responding to Mnuchin’s earlier testimony that the White House didn’t support “a separation of banks from investment banks,” the Massachusetts senator pointed out that “The president and this administration have repeatedly said that they support a 21st century Glass-Steagall.”

Indeed, Mnuchin said these words in his confirmation hearings. National Economic Director Gary Cohn has said the same. And the 2016 Republican Party platform adds explicitly, “We support reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 which prohibits commercial banks from engaging in high-risk investment.” As Warren said to Mnuchin, “Now you’ve just said the opposite.”

Mnuchin responded that there wasn’t any reversal, despite Warren’s incredulity. He said that the administration merely supported a 21st century version of the law. “Which means there are aspects of it, OK, that we think may make sense. But we never said before that we supported a full separation —”

“There are aspects of Glass-Steagall that you support but not breaking up the banks and separating commercial banking from investment banking?” Warren interrupted. “What do you think Glass-Steagall was if that’s not right at the heart of it?”

While the Glass-Steagall Act was part of a larger bill, the Banking Act of 1933, which also created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, for about 80 years it’s been pretty clear that “Glass-Steagall” refers to the firewall between commercial and investment banking. There are no real “aspects” of the policy to pick from without that fundamental structure.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 18, 2017, to testify before the Senate Banking Committee hearing on tax overhaul. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 18, 2017, to testify before the Senate Banking Committee hearing on tax overhaul.

Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Mnuchin replied that he was aware of what Glass-Steagall was, and that the original concern “was actually about conflicts, not credit risk.” This isn’t true. As Julia Maues of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis writes, “An important motivation for the act was the desire to restrict the use of bank credit for speculation and to direct bank credit into what Glass and others thought to be more productive uses, such as industry, commerce, and agriculture.”

He then apologized to Warren for using the phrase “21st century Glass-Steagall” without realizing that was the name of Warren’s legislation, which would separate commercial and investment bank functions. Warren introduced the bill in 2014.

Warren tried repeatedly to get Mnuchin to explain what “21st century Glass-Steagall” is supposed to mean without separation of bank functions. Mnuchin threw out a bunch of noise about integrated banks not causing the financial crisis (though investment/commercial hybrids did provide the lion’s share of the warehouse lending for mortgage originations that fueled the housing bubble, and hybrid bank Citigroup received the largest bailout of any financial entity), and how liquidity and lending would be affected by a Glass-Steagall type of separation (a common industry complaint).

“So – in favor of Glass-Steagall which breaks apart the two arms of banking, except you don’t want to break apart the two parts of banking,” said Warren. “This is like something straight out of George Orwell.”

In fact, it’s even more Orwellian than that. This week, Tim Pawlenty, the head of the industry lobby the Financial Services Roundtable, told Bloomberg that, when the administration says “21st century Glass-Steagall,” what they really mean is deregulation. “The administration’s view of a modern-day Glass-Steagall is a two-tiered approach to regulation in which smaller banks would receive some regulatory relief,” Pawlenty said.

This partial deregulation for smaller banks has nothing to do with Glass-Steagall at all. You would still have hybrid commercial and investment banks dominating the space, holding more and more of the nation’s assets, without their activities separated at all. Selling deregulation as regulation is the very “Through the looking Glass-Steagall” moment the industry wants to promote.

Mnuchin offered to visit Warren “and follow up and talk about this.” Warren responded, “Just tell me what 21st century Glass-Steagall means if it doesn’t mean breaking apart those two things!” Mnuchin responded, “We never said we were in favor of Glass-Steagall, we said we were in favor of a 21st century Glass-Steagall. It couldn’t be clearer.”

“This is crazy,” Warren concluded.

POSTSCRIPT: Mnuchin was also asked about the $89 million fine of his old company, OneWest Bank subsidiary Financial Freedom, for ripping off the government on reverse mortgage insurance. “These issues were identified by my management team and self-reported to HUD and FHA when we became aware of them,” Mnuchin told Sen. Sherrod Brown.

Top photo: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., questions Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin during a Senate Banking Committee hearing in Dirksen Building titled “Domestic and International Policy Update,” on May 18, 2017.