The Washington Post

The Republicans’ fight against consumer protection


We the people — the people who don’t have the money to hire lobbyists — need a strong Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

But if we the people don’t take action, the watchdog agency, which hasn’t had a chance to really fight for us, will be stripped of much of its power by a group of Republican legislators trying to weaken it.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

We must object. We must jump into this fight. Write,
e-mail or call your congressional representatives and tell them to let the bureau be.

Forty-four Republican senators, in a letter to President Obama, threatened to hold up the nomination of anyone selected to head the new consumer bureau, regardless of party affiliation, unless certain changes on how the agency is structured are made.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was created last year under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the most sweeping overhaul of financial regulations in decades. The bureau is supposed to promote financial education and enforce federal consumer financial protection laws, and it was given rulemaking powers that would head off unfair, deceptive and abusive financial practices and products.

The agency is supposed to be up and running by July 21. But if Republican senators have their way, it will never become what it was meant to be — an unapologetic protector of consumers. For the most part, we have allowed the financial services industry to police itself. How has that worked for us?

It hasn’t, or at least not well enough to prevent the exotic and predatory mortgage products that were inappropriately sold to borrowers, many of whom either have lost or are on the verge of losing their homes.

Let’s just look at the changes the Republicans seek with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau:

l Instead of having a single director, they want a five-member board to run the bureau. That’s Washington’s way of clogging any process: More than one head creates a monster. You have a director so you can set policy and not have that direction stymied by committee.

l They want Congress and not the Treasury Department to control the agency’s budget. This would “ensure that the CFPB does not engage in wasteful or inappropriate spending,” the senators wrote. Yes, Congress is a fine example of individuals capable of eliminating wasteful spending. Two words, senators: “Federal deficit.”

l They want to create safety and soundness checks to prevent the bureau from imposing regulations that would cause a bank failure. I find this point the most laughable. The consumer bureau was established in the aftermath of banking and Wall Street firms that ran amok, causing their own failures. These institutions didn’t need the government’s help to fail — they did a fantastic job of that all by themselves. It was the lack of adequate oversight that failed to stop the stupidity that led to the creation of banking instruments that pushed us into a recession.

At any rate, the Dodd-Frank financial reform act also created the Financial Stability Oversight Council. The council can overturn any rule by the bureau that puts the safety and soundness of the banking system at risk. The council is made up of five nonvoting members and 10 voting members — nine federal financial regulatory agencies and an independent member with insurance expertise. I’d say that’s a good lineup for oversight. The council needs a two-thirds majority to overturn CFPB rules.

“Many in Congress have made clear their intention to defund, delay and defang the consumer agency before it can help one family,” said Elizabeth Warren, who is serving as an assistant to President Obama and a special adviser to the secretary of the Treasury. Warren is setting up the bureau. It’s really Warren, a longtime consumer advocate, the GOP senators want to keep from heading the bureau. What, she’s too pro-consumer to run an agency that is supposed to be consumer-focused?

The senators say in their letter: “We support strong and effective consumer protection.”

Hogwash. Because if you did, then you wouldn’t be entertaining several bills this week aimed directly at crippling the consumer bureau.

Countered Sen. Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee: “This is about accountability.”

Shelby and the other senators who sent Obama that letter must think we are idiots. This is about the bankers and their continual efforts to avoid any meaningful oversight. So with all due respect, senators, it is clear that not everyone supports consumer protection. If Congress had been doing its job, many consumers wouldn’t be hurting financially right now.

Senators, let the bureau be. Let it get up and running and see what it does before putting your foot out to trip it up.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Her e-mail address is Questions are welcomed, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible.

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