The crypto industry and Washington seemed finally ready to get along in 2021.
When Gary Gensler took over as the SEC’s chair in April, President Biden’s pick was hailed as a smart choice by some in the industry who expected the former MIT professor who’d taught blockchain to be an ally of sorts. Tw months later, Ripple CEO Brad Garlinghouse praised senators — including outspoken crypto critic Elizabeth Warren — for “looking to understand the nuances within crypto” instead of viewing the technology as “just a fad or mostly for criminals.”
The detente turned out to be an illusion.
The crypto industry, viewed with suspicion and concern by some key politicians and regulators, found itself reeling from ever more intense scrutiny from Washington — and some smack talk from Gensler, Warren and others.
Coinbase was forced to shelve a planned product, saying the SEC threatened it with legal action. Ripple accused the agency of strong-arm tactics based on a “regulation by enforcement” approach to the industry.
In November, the $1 trillion infrastructure bill passed despite protests from the crypto industry and its supporters over language that they fear would require crypto miners, node operators and developers to report transactions to the IRS.
The battles are bound to heat up in 2022.
They will no doubt feature prominent government figures led by Gensler and Warren, Rep. Maxine Waters and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and crypto industry stalwarts led by Garlinghouse, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong and Block CEO Jack Dorsey.
But those individuals, while powerful, have a lot on their plates. Protocol has identified some other players — crypto execs, lobbyists, regulators, politicians — who may not have the same high public profile but will play critical and prominent roles in the debates to come.
Hester Peirce, commissioner, SEC
Appointed by President Trump in 2018, Peirce has been called “Crypto Mom” for her positions supportive of financial technology innovation and the crypto industry. Peirce has emerged as a pro-crypto foil to Gensler on the SEC. Recently, she and fellow Commissioner Elad Roisman criticized Gensler for “failing to provide clarity” on the SEC’s view of digital assets, which has also been one of the top complaints of crypto companies. Peirce doesn’t always agree with industry positions, though. She has argued, for example, that Coinbase’s proposal for a new regulator for digital assets was unnecessary.
Stu Alderoty, general counsel, Ripple
Alderoty was among those who had high hopes for the SEC under Gensler, whom he called a “refreshing” choice. But he eventually became one of Gensler’s fiercest critics on Twitter. Last week, he accused the SEC of using “‘strategic ambiguity’ and enforcement — or the threat of it — to advance its own jurisdiction rather than collaborate with other regulators.”
Kristin Smith, executive director, Blockchain Association
Smith leads the crypto industry’s major lobby group, which suffered a setback this year when it failed in its bid to remove or soften crypto-related provisions in the infrastructure bill. But Smith said the controversy was a wake-up call for the industry and enabled it to flex its lobbying muscles. Crypto companies are now better prepared for upcoming regulatory and policy battles next year — and Smith is poised to rally their forces.
Alesia Jeanne Haas, CFO, Coinbase
Haas was one of the top crypto executives who appeared before the House Financial Services Committee this month. She affirmed Coinbase’s view that “the government should regulate digital assets under a new, comprehensive framework” which should be “assigned to a single federal regulator.” A veteran Wall Street executive, Haas joined Coinbase as its first CFO in 2018 and oversees the company’s U.S. subsidiary as well.
Rep. Don Beyer
The Virginia Democrat recently introduced what is widely considered the most comprehensive proposal for regulating crypto, which includes clarifying which ones should be considered securities or commodities. It would also give the Treasury Department the power to approve stablecoins backed by the U.S. dollar. He has warned that failure to understand and regulate crypto could trigger another major financial crisis similar to the crash of 2008.
Sen. Cynthia Lummis
Lummis, the first known bitcoin owner elected to the U.S. Senate, helped lead the unsuccessful effort to change language in the infrastructure bill opposed by the crypto industry and crypto users. She’s become known for high-profile attempts to attract crypto companies to her state, such as inviting crypto miners affected by the crackdown in China: "We want you in Wyoming!"
Rohit Chopra, director, CFPB
Chopra is expected to revive the CFPB’s watchdog role at a time when tech companies are playing an increasingly dominant role in financial services, including the crypto industry. He has said the agency will focus closely on the broader consumer adoption of cryptocurrencies, particularly stablecoins. “Stablecoins are right now primarily used for speculative purposes,” he said at a House Financial Services Committee hearing in October. “But one could imagine that if it starts riding the rails of some of the large networks or big tech companies it could scale very, very quickly.”
Clothilde “Cloey” Hewlett, commissioner, California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation
Hewlett just took over the main financial regulatory agency in the home state of some of crypto’s most prominent companies and investors. She’s also leading the DFPI at a time when California has been sending strong signals that it’s taking crypto more seriously. The state this year created the Office of Financial Technology Innovation, which is part of Hewlett’s agency and will take the lead in defining new rules for fintech and crypto.
Letitia James, attorney general, New York
James has become known for tough crypto-related enforcement actions and statements. In February, she ordered Bitfinex and Tether to end all trading activity with New Yorkers, accusing the firms of overstating stablecoin reserves. In October, she ordered two crypto lenders to shut down. In March, she warned investors to take “extreme caution when investing in virtual currencies,” saying “too often, greedy industry players take unnecessary risks with investors’ money.”
Katherine Dowling, general counsel and chief compliance officer, Bitwise
Dowling spent a decade with the U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecuting financial crimes before moving to the private sector. She joined the crypto asset management firm in March and has become known for advocating for more clarity in crypto regulations as she also warned against stifling innovation. “If you have too much regulation, it’s the iron fist that hurts growth and development and sends it offshore which isn’t good for a number of reasons,” she told Blockworks in September. “You want to make sure that the regulations are correct and understand businesses.”