House votes to overhaul consumer agency

July 21, 2011

The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau officially opened for business Thursday during rancorous political debate over the structure of the agency and who should lead it.

The House approved a bill Thursday that would strengthen the veto power of the Financial Stability Oversight Council over the bureau’s decisions. It would also install a five-member commission rather than a single director to head the agency and delay transfer of powers to the new agency. The bill passed 241 to 173, largely supported by Republicans who have voiced concerns about the scope of the watchdog bureau.

“Is it possible consumer protection. . .could trump safety and soundness? Absolutely,” said Rep. Sean P. Duffy (R-Wisc.), who sponsored the bill. “We want to make sure there’s that balance.”

The proposal stands little chance of survival in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Banking committee Chairman Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) has called the move “irresponsible” and on Thursday accused Republicans of attacking the sweeping financial reforms that Congress passed last year in the wake of the Great Recession.

“While it appears that many on Wall Street, and even some here in Washington, have already forgotten the real cost of inadequate financial regulations, I have not,” he said.

Still, the bill underscores the hurdles that remain in implementing the wide-ranging law on the anniversary of its passage. Republicans are trying to delay the law by cutting funding for agencies to carry out many of the new rules, while regulators continue to grapple with writing guidelines.

The Obama administration’s top banking regulators acknowledged Thursday that more work needs to be done but said they are making steady progress.

“Any sweeping reform comes with costs and uncertainties,” Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said before the Senate banking committee. “I believe there’s widespread agreement that the regulatory structure, before the crisis, was inadequate.”

The CFPB consolidates power from seven government agencies into one regulator, with a focus on transparency, disclosures and protection against unfair, deceptive or abusive practices. Its authority covers most financial products, including credit cards and mortgages.

But the agency still does not have a confirmed director. Without one, it cannot write many new rules, and it lacks authority to oversee the payday lenders and check cashers that many consumer rights groups say prey on the most vulnerable Americans.

Liberals had pushed President Obama to pick Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, who set up the agency. But earlier this week, he passed her over for one of her employees: former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray, who currently serves as head of enforcement at the CFPB.

Cordray must be confirmed by the Senate, and administration officials are hoping for a speedy hearing. Republicans have vowed to block any nominee unless the proposals to alter the bureau are adopted. They have also called for the bureau to be subject to congressional appropriations. It is funded through the Federal Reserve.

In a statement Thursday, Warren said the agency is ready to work. It employs about 400 people and has begun accepting complaints from consumers about their credit cards. Two people shared experiences with their financial providers within the first hour of the agency’s launch of its Web site.

“This agency is ready to be a cop on the beat for American families — and I couldn’t be prouder,” Warren said.

A study released this week and commissioned by consumer groups found that 63 percent of voters favored greater government oversight of financial companies. Nearly three-quarters supported a single agency tasked with protecting consumers.

For more news on the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, visit Post Business.

Ylan Q. Mui is a financial reporter at The Washington Post covering the Federal Reserve and the economy.
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