Warren sits down with big bank lobbyists

The Harvard professor and chief bailout watchdog will take the helm of the consumer protection agency created by the financial overhaul legislation.
By Brady Dennis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Elizabeth Warren, a top candidate to lead the new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, met quietly last week with some of her sharpest critics: big bank lobbyists.

Before the Harvard law professor visited the White House on Thursday to talk with Obama advisers about the consumer bureau job, she spent an hour just down Pennsylvania Avenue at the Financial Services Roundtable, which represents the nation's largest financial firms, said people familiar with the meeting.

Warren and Roundtable President Steve Bartlett spoke at length in his office about the role of the new regulatory agency, which -- despite the group's objections -- was included in the far-reaching financial legislation signed into law by President Obama last month.

Meeting with an industry trade group isn't out of the ordinary for Warren. During her regular trips to Washington in her role as watchdog over the government's $700 billion bailout program over the past year and a half, Warren has sought to build relationships with lawmakers and interest groups who have at time been wary of her fiery rhetoric.

She has filled her days in the capital meeting with administration officials, reporters, banking regulators, members of Congress and lobbyists representing community banks, credit unions and other financial industries. For instance, in June she dined with Cam Fine, president of the Independent Community Bankers of America, and last month she met in her dingy office near Union Station with Richard Hunt, president of the Consumer Bankers Association.

But until last week, Warren and lobbyists representing the nation's largest banks had largely steered clear of each other.

Warren has reserved some of her harshest rhetoric for big banks, bemoaning their well-funded influence on Capitol Hill, chiding them for their treatment of consumers and criticizing the government safety net for firms deemed too big to fail. In turn, the Roundtable and other groups were among the staunchest critics of the new consumer agency -- an idea that Warren originated -- complaining that it would add another layer of burdensome regulation that would increase costs, stifle financial innovation and curtail choices for consumers.

Neither Roundtable officials nor Warren were eager to publicize last week's encounter. "We don't confirm or deny any meetings," said Scott Talbott, the group's chief lobbyist. Through a spokesman, Warren also declined to comment.

The financial overhaul bill gives President Obama authority to appoint an independent director of the new consumer bureau to a five-year term, subject to Senate confirmation. The agency will have broad autonomy to write and enforce rules governing credit cards, mortgages and other such loans.

Warren quickly emerged as the highest-profile and most polarizing candidate for the job -- adored by consumer advocates and liberal groups, disliked by many in the financial industry, who fear she will crimp legitimate business practices. Other candidates for the job include Assistant Treasury Secretary Michael S. Barr and Eugene Kimmelman, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's antitrust division.

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