Byron Dorgan’s Prophetic Words

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“Too big to fail — remember that term!” That was the prophetic warning issued from the Senate floor by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) on November 4, 1999.

Who could forget those words today?

Dorgan was arguing against the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, also known as The Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999. The new law would repeal key elements of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which separated regular, everyday banks from investment banks in order to protect peoples’ bank accounts from risky investments. Passed during the Great Depression, when bank runs were common and thousands of banks went out of business, Glass-Steagall also gave greater control to the Federal Reserve System and created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which insures bank deposits with “the full faith and credit of the United States Government.”

“I’ll bet one day somebody’s going to look back at this and say, ‘how on earth could we have thought it made sense to allow the banking industry to concentrate through merger and acquisition to become bigger and bigger and bigger,’” Dorgan said. “How did we think that was gonna help this country?”

Watch Dorgan’s complete 1999 speech — one of the most prescient in American political history — below.

By 1999, the Depression-era roots of Glass-Steagall seemed like ancient history, and some felt the provision separating commercial and investment banks was getting in the way of business. Deregulation was the buzzword of the decade, and Dorgan was a lonely figure arguing against it — the Gramm-Leach-Bliley bill was passed by the Senate 90-8, and by the House 362-57.

The new legislation was signed into law by President Bill Clinton on November 12, 1999, paving the way for the creation of banking behemoths like Citigroup, Bank of America and J. P. Morgan Chase. Citigroup — born from the merger of Citicorp, a commercial bank, and Travelers Group, an insurance company that had recently acquired Salomon Smith Barney, one of the largest investment banks — was technically formed before Glass-Steagall was repealed.

“I think we will in ten years time look back and say we should not have done that,” Dorgan said.

Fast forward ten years, and those banks that had grown “too big to fail” nearly brought down the global economy. The repeal of Glass-Steagall was widely cited as a cause of the financial collapse of 2008.

In the wake of the crisis, President Obama put forth a proposal for a “sweeping overhaul of the United States financial regulatory system, a transformation on a scale not seen since the reforms that followed the Great Depression.” But for all the provisions in its 2,300 pages, the bill that he signed in July 2010 — known as the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act — still doesn’t separate commercial and investment banks.

Now, Dorgan is sounding another warning.

“I tried to pass some legislation in Dodd-Frank that says if you are too big to fail you’re too damn big and you should be broken up,” says Dorgan. “Dodd-Frank passed with my vote because it does some good things and it moves in the right direction. But it is timid. If you were going to address the real causes here, you would decide that too big to fail cannot be tolerated.” We’ll see if his words turn out to be as prescient this time around.

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  • Dsweeton

    Our family is so grateful to have you back, Mr. Moyers. As we have said many times your show should be required viewing! Tonight’s show is no different.  We keep asking why have the American people  allowed this deterioration to happen. The quality of our politicians has over the years diminished to the point where we are ashamed to be a part of this country. We are grateful to  Byron Dorgan and the very few others who have tried to do the right things. We support OWS and hope millions will also.
    Dan and Beverly Sweeton
    Lebanon, TN 

  • Earl2120

    I could not say it better than Dsweeton just did.  Mr. Moyers…  Thank You! 

    I hope there is time to wake up the greater American public.

  • Tanya Roberts, PhD economist

    YES, YES, YES…thank you for explaining why/how the financial meltdown of 2008 was so severe!! How it compared to the Great Depression. How the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 worked to separate risky investments from traditional banking. How cronyism and intense lobbying by the banks and Wall Street wore down the Executive and Legislative Branches and permitted its repeal.  NOW we have to reinstate those protections!!
    I salute Bill Moyers, Byron Dorgan, and PBS for bringing this program to us!! I hope the NYT, WSJ, WP and the rest of the press take up the call to action in thier reporting and editorials!  I am proud that my Senator Maria Cantwell, WA, is working with Dorgan.
    Tanya Roberts, PhD economist 

  • Don

    Why is it that when “special interests” in foreign countries front their politicians money behind the scenes, to curry favors, we call it bribery and call their societies corrupt? Yet, every “special interest group” in the U.S.A. does the same thing here, every day, and we call it “lobbying?”  What’s the difference between  the two? And please don’t tell me that special interest in the U.S.A. gives away hundreds of millions of dollars to a specifically targeted group in our society (Politicians), without expecting anything in return. If that was the case they could/would have given those huge amounts of money to the thousands of legitimate charity organizations in America. Maybe Mr. Moyers can explore this as a potential topic for future broadcast. The difference (if any) or co-relation between bribery-corruption and American style “lobbying.” Thank you for your good works Mr. Moyers.

  • Anonymous

    I had a dream that I was walking down this pristine trail in the midst of an awe inspiring wilderness but, I stopped abruptly and in horror when I came upon this black, gnarly tree reaching into the sky, and hanging from every ugly limb were CEO’s from every mammoth investment bank who destroyed the economy. I thought right then, “Wow” ! That must be the ( Lending Tree ). I had a great breakfast this morning.
    Like ·  · 5 hours ago · 

  • mikies

    Its clear, that this government has become a monster to the American people, unless you are the 1%

  • MarciZ

    I am currently listening to Bill Moyers and Company on MPT. I would like to see Senator Dorgan on a ticket to run for President or at least to run as Obama’s VEEP. Ten years ago, my late husband could see that it was all going to come crashing down. He was in his mid-forties at the time. Early in his life he had worked for stock companies but found the whole scene distasteful and troubling. He predicted the decline of the Stock Markets well before he died at the end of 2005. I am alarmed to see that it is going up again. He felt that it was way too high then. It would be better if it stabilized and climbed slowly. If enough bubbles burst one after the other (,  financial/housing, etc.), eventually our economy will run out of air.

    I appreciated John Reed’s honesty about and analysis of an industry of which he was a part.

    The voice mail at the end of the program might have implied that you should do more than just report what is happening. But, pointing out this fine, without comment, would allow people to make their own inferences. I know you have to be balanced in your approach, but bending over backwards is not balanced and continues the whole Humpty Dumpty reel of our money-drunk society. But thank you, at least, for including her voice-mail so that we could be informed.


  • MarciZ


    I really like this. Straight out of Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” Such a stark image of the mindset of the 1% and all the wannabees and, hopefully, of how they will end up and be remembered.

  • Trader-scott

    Superior.Can this be bought on DVD ? Scott

  • David Kennedy

    Due your due diligence.  Look up Bryon Dorgan on google.  Notice he’s now a lobbiest.  The truth is usually around the middle.   Reinstituting anything without harnessing both party’s, and all politicians is like regulating the Mafia.  They will still lie, steal, and kill within the law you wrote.

    Cut off the politicians from graft and you cut off the banks.  Both party’s are surrounded with the same financial people from the same banking institutions.  Very few are innocent.

  • AnneLBS

    Hi Trader-scott,

    You can call 1-800-336-1917 to order a DVD of this show. In the future, you will be able to order copies of the shows from

    Hope this helps!

  • TieDyeClay

    The unholy trinity of University of Chicago School of Economics theory (Milton Friedman: privatize everything, deregulate/no limits on corporate behavior incl financial industry, cut social spending continues to be implemented (bi-partisan is an understatement) in the USA & globally (in Greece as we speak) . Just like the tax system it creates that which it was designed for…tremendous wealth/power for a few while injuring millions of human beings. this behavior is anti-social/psychopathic by it’s nature & an individual behaving like this would be diagnosed as such. I would like to see Naomi Klein (The Shock Doctrine), Donald Bartlett-James Steele (America: Who Really Pays the Taxes), David Cay Johnston (Free Lunch-Perfectly Legal), Noam Chomsky (too many to name) and/or William Grieder (Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy on your show. They have all been writing about these issues for years.

  • b. a.

    Rep. Dorgan mentioned that the “big money” has the resources to persuade our public policy, and the “little guy” has no one looking after their interests….  BUT, that’s why we vote!!!!!!  You are supposed to be looking after our interests! Alas, I fear no one is doing their job…

  • Amandlak

    Will they be rich when America is on it’s knees?  Will they be proud?

  • Anonymous

    Yes, Bill Moyers is sometime too polite.

  • Anonymous

    A prophetic dream…    so really kewl!

  • Anonymous

    Or Van Morrison’s “The Burning Ground”

  • Anonymous

    Is Dorgan the lobbyist; or is he the lobbyest?

  • Anonymous

    When more honest politicians reject the big money beyond the revolving door they are laughed at. That is why Byron Dorgon is now a K-street lobbyist. The pressure from family and peers to get more than a Senate pension and perks must have been intense.

  • Steven Kippel

    It should be noted that Dorgan is from North Dakota, which is the only state with a state-owned bank. The Bank of North Dakota. 

  • Best Gov’t Money Can Buy!

    The current financial services plutocracy must be defeated. Where are the politicians that re;present the common man in this country? 

    God Bless Byron Dorgan!

  • DJC 

    I am always hopeful when I visit a site like yours as I see others have the same concern: are we speaking loud enough to make the needed changes to prohibit the banks from repeating the last 12 years? Me thinks not. Do some of us back off too far? Me thinks yes.

    The following is taken from the dialogue of a popular movie and accurately describes a significant characteristic of the human condition and allows for the top 2% to own more than 50% of our country’s wealth:

    “The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed — for lack of a better word — is good.
    Greed is right. Greed works.
    Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.
    Greed, in all of its forms — greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind…”