WHAT OTHERS SAY: Senate blocks new consumer bureau chief, and everyone loses

Tuesday, December 13, 2011 | 5:43 p.m. CST

Unless you work in the banking industry or a non-bank financial business like a mortgage company, debt-collecting or payday lending, you took it on the chin in the U.S. Senate last Thursday.

Forty-five Republican senators — including Roy Blunt — voted to block a confirmation vote for Richard Cordray, President Barack Obama's nominee to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

This is one of those confusing process votes that sometimes obscure what's really at stake.

So let's keep it simple: The effect of this vote is a big win for a financial industry that is desperately trying to avoid being fully accountable to its customers.

It's a win for opaque language in credit agreements and mortgage documents. It's a win for jacking up credit rates or taking away your house.

It'll make it easier for debt collectors to hound you. Private student loan lenders will continue to operate in the shadows.

The industry that did so much to bring on the Great Recession continues to fight every effort to rein in its excesses. In this, the industry has no greater ally than the Republican Party.

The bureau was created by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010. It was the brainchild of Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard bankruptcy expert who insisted that consumers deserved an agency designed to protect their interests.

Obama appointed Warren to set up the agency. But she had become anathema by the industry and its congressional toadies; it was clear that she could not win Senate confirmation.

Obama instead appointed Cordray, a former Ohio attorney general who was Warren's deputy for enforcement.

She returned home to Massachusetts and now is running for the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Scott Brown for his seat in the Senate. Brown knows that opposing financial reform is a losing proposition; he was the sole Republican to vote to allow Cordray's nomination to come to a vote.

His fellow Republicans tried to cloak their votes as matters of principle. They just didn't want more regulation — though more regulation would have helped avoid the 2008 meltdown. They wanted a board in charge of the bureau, not just a single individual, and they wanted the bureau to have to come before Congress for its money, rather than be an independent arm of the Federal Reserve.

The bureau, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," is like "something out of the Stalinist era."

When you hear someone mention Stalin or Hitler, two things immediately become clear: (1) He's trying to fog something past you, and (2) He needs to review the actual horrors of Stalin or Hitler.

Obama reacted to the Senate's vote by suggesting that he might use a recess appointment to put Cordray in charge through 2012. He'd have to pick a fight to do that. The Constitution says neither house of Congress can recess for more than three days without the consent of the other. Legally, it's not clear that Obama could make a recess appointment without the help of Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio.

More process matters. Keep it simple. The financial industry has bought itself lots of friends in Washington. You haven't. The industry won. You lost.

Copyright, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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