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GOP giving consumers' needs short shrift

Republicans' actions make it clear that they won't help beleaguered consumers until they've ensured that the new financial watchdog agency is more bark than bite.

September 09, 2011|David Lazarus

You can almost understand Republican lawmakers standing firm on matters of economic stimulus and debt reduction. Whether or not you agree with their positions, at least it can be argued that they're guided by good-old-fashioned conservative ideology.

But when it comes to consumer protection, the Republicans are merely pandering to their deep-pocketed corporate cronies and opposing anything President Obama supports, no matter how reasonable or meritorious it may be.

This week's confirmation hearing for Richard Cordray as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau made clear that the GOP won't help beleaguered consumers until it's ensured that the new watchdog agency is more bark than bite.

Republican lawmakers are demanding that Obama water down the leadership of the agency and limit its regulatory clout, which is precisely what the banking industry has been calling for since the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was first proposed in 2009.

Until they get what they want, 44 GOP senators say they won't approve anyone for the top spot. Not Cordray. Not the pope. Not nobody. And never mind that the agency won't be fully operational until a director is in place.

"I'm sure that you have a good background," Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told Cordray this week. "But you're caught between a big substantive debate, and that's going to have to be resolved, I think, before we move this nomination farther."

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) wasn't buying that.

"They only want to block his nomination, or anybody else's nomination, simply because they don't like the agency," he said of his GOP colleagues on the Senate Banking Committee. "They apparently don't want a consumer agency to be representing consumers."

Bingo.

So let's review what's on the table. Obama called for creation of a new federal agency that would make sure consumers are treated fairly by financial institutions. It would oversee credit cards, mortgages, payday loans and other products that can get people deep into hot water.

If this were simply a matter of personal responsibility, there'd be no need for such an agency. But it's not. As banks have repeatedly demonstrated through onerous and ethically questionable lending practices, consumers often aren't solely to blame for financial hardship.

All too often, they've faced unwarranted rate increases or been sold complex loans they couldn't possibly repay — not to mention later having their home foreclosed upon after the bank filed fabricated documents with courts and county clerks.

Existing regulatory agencies oversee various aspects of the financial services industry, but they often don't know what other agencies are doing and are frequently more concerned with the stability of the industry than with consumer protection.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was intended to remedy that. And despite repeated huffing and puffing from banks that such an agency was unneeded, the simple fact was always this: If banks do nothing wrong, they have nothing to worry about.

Obama nominated Cordray to lead the agency after deciding that his original pick, Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, was too controversial to win over Republicans. Warren made no secret of her disdain for bankers, who she said were to blame for much of the country's economic troubles.

Cordray, 52, a former Ohio attorney general (and five-time "Jeopardy" champion), was a safer choice. Business leaders in his home state say he's a man they can deal with. But that won him no friends among GOP senators who have vowed to hijack the confirmation process unless the president agrees to their terms.

In particular, they want the director's job replaced with a five-person committee, which, among other things, would make the agency more unwieldy and vulnerable to industry lobbying.

"The director will single-handedly determine the financial products consumers can buy, as well as which consumers have access to credit, and which do not," Shelby declared at Cordray's confirmation hearing. "It is staggering the amount of control the director will exert over the daily financial choices available to Americans."

Not really. The choices will be much as they've always been. The difference is that now there will be a single agency, run by a single person at the president's behest, making sure those choices are offered fairly and prudently.

Pamela Banks, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, called on Republican lawmakers to stop playing games and to instead allow the Consumer Financial Bureau to get down to business.

"Holding up this nomination may be good for the big banks and shady lenders," she said, "but not for the families whose finances are drained by high-cost loans and other unfair financial practices."

It doesn't matter whether you're a Republican or a Democrat. Ultimately, we're all consumers (even you, Sen. Shelby). And we could all use a helping hand.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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