Research support was provided by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
On May 24 Elizabeth Warren was back on Capitol Hill testifying before Congress, defending her brainchild, the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a key element of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation. Warren is a major celebrity in Washington, an Oklahoma-born Harvard law professor who’s done more than anyone since Ralph Nader to put consumer protection on the national agenda. The room was packed with reporters, consumer advocates and lobbyists. GOP Representative Patrick McHenry, who chaired the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing, could barely hide his disgust for the CFPB and Warren, accusing her of lying to Congress and frequently interrupting her answers. “In a few short weeks,” McHenry warned ominously, “the bureau will become a powerful instrument in the hands of progressive regulators.”
In part because it’s one of the strongest aspects of Dodd-Frank, the CFPB has become a favorite target of Republican attacks, right up there with George Soros, ACORN and Planned Parenthood. It’s been called “one of the greatest assaults on economic liberty in my lifetime” (Representative Jeb Hensarling) and “the most powerful agency ever created” (Representative Spencer Bachus). The Wall Street Journal opinion page denounced Warren and the bureau three times in one week in March. And the bureau hasn’t even officially launched!
On May 13 the House Financial Services Committee passed three bills designed to weaken the CFPB, which goes live on July 21. One was sponsored by freshman Representative Sean Duffy, the telegenic former star of The Real World: Boston. When he entered Congress, Duffy admitted he “wasn’t very familiar” with “banking issues, housing issues, insurance issues. These are specific issues that I didn’t deal with in my entire life.” Yet within a few months he found himself denouncing the CFPB as a “rogue agency” with an “authoritarian structure” and introducing legislation to give existing banking regulators greater authority to override the bureau’s new rules. Other bills passed by the committee sought to change the structure of the bureau from a single director to a bipartisan commission, making it harder to act quickly and decisively, and prevent the bureau from assuming power until the Senate confirms a director. In a rather stunning bit of hostage taking, forty-four Senate Republicans recently announced they would not approve any nominee for the CFPB unless the GOP proposals were implemented. (Warren and CFPB officials declined interview requests.)
At one May hearing Duffy claimed his bill would protect small bankers and credit unions in his district. “I come from central and northern Wisconsin,” he said. “This is not Wall Street, I promise you.” Yet the legislation has endeared him to the most powerful financial interests on Capitol Hill and K Street’s lobbying corridor. In recent months groups opposed to the bureau, such as the American Bankers Association (ABA), the American Financial Services Association (AFSA), the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), the Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA), the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) and the National Association of Federal Credit Unions (NAFCU), have donated thousands to Duffy’s re-election campaign. “Why is Sean Duffy sponsoring this legislation?” asks Ed Mierzwinski, director of the consumer program at USPIRG. “How many big banks are in Wausau, Wisconsin? This is all about money.”
The three chief sponsors of the CFPB bills—Duffy, Bachus and Shelley Moore Capito—received a total of $1.4 million from the finance, real estate and insurance sector during the 2010 election. Now they’re returning the favor. The GOP Congressional assault on the CFPB is a clever way for the caucus to appeal to the Tea Party’s antigovernment fervor while attracting prodigious campaign contributions from Wall Street and forcing the Obama administration to play defense on yet another critical piece of legislation. ”This is a preview of coming attractions,” says Congressman Barney Frank, the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, “and the audience is the business community and their donors.”