Studies in American Political Development

Competing Institutional Perspectives in the Life of Glass–Steagall

Philip A. Wallach 

Brookings Institution


A growing body of scholarship explores processes of gradual but transformative institutional change, classifying patterns of change into several categories. I argue that policymakers themselves actively contest the appropriate institutional frames for understanding changes as they seek to guide institutional change, and show that judicial determinations of statutory meaning are sensitive to judgments about which institutional perspective is most compelling. A process-tracing examination of institutional changes in the Glass–Steagall Act over the law's whole life span, from 1933 to 1999, provides a concrete example of how the dynamics of contestation can play out. Those who conceived of Glass–Steagall as the institutional embodiment of the separation between commercial and investment banking argued that expansion of commercial bank powers represented institutional drift. Alternatively, those who came to see Glass–Steagall as just one set of statutory imperatives to be handled within the larger institutional context of American banking law, including banking regulators, interpreted regulatory changes as constructive acts of conversion adapting to novel economic challenges. I document the slow process through which courts came to accept the second framing while noting how the fixity of statutory text nevertheless continued to limit available adaptations.



  I am grateful to many people for their comments on previous versions of this article: Doug Arnold, Chuck Cameron, Nick Carnes, Erik Filipiak, Paul Frymer, John Kastellec, Vera Krimnus, Dave Lewis, Herschel Nachlis, Kim Scheppele, Keith Whittington, Emily Zackin, and Julian Zelizer, as well as the editors of this journal and two very helpful anonymous reviewers. I am also indebted to Rep. Jim Leach, whose perspective was invaluable in navigating the case study. Errors and omissions are, of course, my own.