Big bonuses are back. Backlash isn't.

By Colin Barr, senior writer


(Fortune) -- Whatever happened to bonus rage?

This time last year, there was an uproar over the bonuses being paid at bailed-out AIG (AIG, Fortune 500), and big pay packages were turning into a public relations fiasco for taxpayer-supported banks such as Goldman Sachs (GS, Fortune 500).

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President Obama wants Wall Street's help, but pay packages keep on rising.

Yet few batted an eye this week when Wall Street revealed its latest round of pay excess. Giant Wall Street banks set aside $39.2 billion to pay their workers in the first quarter.

That's up 9% from a year ago, driven in part by a return to bubble-era profit levels.

The gains came even as the staff at the big six banks -- Citigroup, Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500), Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase (JPM, Fortune 500), Morgan Stanley and Goldman -- shrank by 2%.

While both Goldman and Morgan Stanley are devoting a smaller share of revenue to compensation, both also are on track to exceed last year's pay levels.

Goldman, which set aside $5.5 billion in the first quarter to pay its 33,100 employees. That means the firm has accrued $166,163 for each worker for just one quarter's work.

Pay more than doubled to $4.4 billion at Morgan Stanley, thanks to its acquisition of Citigroup's (C, Fortune 500) Smith Barney wealth management business. Average quarterly pay there was $70,740 per worker.

But outlandish as Wall Street bonuses may be, pay figures generally have received little notice. Investors have been fixated instead on the Securities and Exchange Commission's fraud case against Goldman, which was announced Friday.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is trying to buck up support for an overhaul of financial regulation. The Democrats have so far had no success winning Republican support for all of their financial reform proposals. They need at least one Republican vote to avoid a filibuster in the Senate.

More partisan clashes look inevitable. Both Republican SEC commissioners reportedly voted against bringing the Goldman case, for instance, and Rep. Darrell Issa, (R-Calif.) this week demanded the SEC reveal any case-related dealings with Democrats in the administration or Congress.

Attention shifts from bonuses to lobbying efforts

Accordingly, much interest has turned from how big executives' wallets are to how much money the banks are spending in Washington to oppose the reformers.

The big six banks spent $6.6 million lobbying the federal government in the first quarter, according to disclosure forms filed this week. That's up 24% from a year ago.

The biggest spender, JPMorgan, spent $1.5 million, up from $1.3 million a year ago. Goldman spent $1.15 million, up from $670,000 a year earlier. Goldman's 72% increase in lobbying spending made it the fourth-biggest gainer in the first quarter, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In a speech extolling the virtues of a financial overhaul Thursday, President Obama called the lobbyists "a withering force" as he called on Wall Street to support reforms.

The banks aren't the only big spenders. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent nearly $31 million lobbying in the first quarter, according to federal filings compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. The biggest spender among public companies was General Electric (GE, Fortune 500), with $7 million.

The Chamber of Commerce also has sponsored a $3 million ad campaign targeting financial reform proposals, drawing the ire of Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin.

"That campaign is not designed to improve the House and Senate bills," Wolin said last month. "It is designed to defeat them. It is designed to delay reform until the memory of the crisis fades and the political will for change dies out." To top of page

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