Sides appear entrenched before consumer agency vote

December 7, 2011

The political stalemate that has dogged one of the centerpieces of President Obama’s financial reform efforts — a new consumer watchdog agency — showed no signs of breaking on Wednesday as the Senate neared a critical vote to confirm the agency’s director.

Forty-five Republicans have threatened to filibuster a confirmation vote scheduled Thursday for Richard Cordray to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which launched in July to oversee products such as credit cards and mortgages. GOP lawmakers have not taken issue with the candidate, who won accolades as attorney general in Ohio and currently leads the enforcement division of the CFPB, but rather the structure of the agency.

“It makes no sense for a structure to be created, no matter how noble the cause may be, where there is simply no accountability, no oversight for the budget,” said Maine Sen. Susan Collins, one of a half-dozen Republicans the Obama administration had said it hoped to sway in favor of the agency.

Republicans want to replace the agency’s director with a five-member commission and give other regulators stronger powers over its decisions. They also want to subject the new agency to the congressional appropriations process. The CFPB is currently funded through the Federal Reserve.

Democrats have rejected those requests, and each side blames the other for the logjam. The Obama administration assembled state attorneys general from both parties at the White House on Wednesday to push for Cordray’s confirmation.

Senate Democrats cast the debate as an attack on America’s middle class. “Wall Street has a legion of lobbyists protecting its interests. We need someone protecting Main Street,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) “This is really about whose side are you on.”

Obama’s National Economic Council this week released a report highlighting the consequences of leaving the agency’s top position vacant. Although the CFPB can enforce existing regulations, it is largely unable to supervise financial institutions such as payday lenders, prepaid card providers or debt collectors until a director is in place.

The agency has begun to flex its muscle since opening for business four months ago. It has handled about 5,000 consumer complaints and begun investigating the controversial market for private student loans. At a news conference in Ohio on Wednesday, it unveiled a two-page credit card agreement that it hopes will become an industry model for simple design and readable language. The CFPB touted its focus on transparency and blamed complicated loans and consumer confusion for the financial crisis.

“No one in Ohio or anywhere else in the world wants to see our economy teetering on the edge of collapse,” said Raj Date, special adviser to the Treasury secretary on the CFPB. “The bureau is here to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

Industry groups expressed concern that the pared-down credit card agreement could leave them vulnerable to lawsuits from consumers, arguing that much of the complicated language is actually mandated by federal regulations.

“The model released by the bureau is a good first step, but could be made even shorter, as well as less susceptible to costly lawsuits and the higher consumer prices that come from them,” the American Bankers Association said in a statement.

The CFPB was created as part of last year’s controversial legislation overhauling the nation’s financial system. Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren was charged with setting up the agency and was a top contender for director, but her sharp rhetoric and fiery persona made her anathema to Republicans, contributing to the political stalemate.

Warren left the agency this summer after she was passed over for director. She is running in Massachusetts as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate. Her opponent, Sen. Scott Brown, is one of only two Republicans who said they planned to support Cordray’s confirmation.

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