5/13/2011 5:30 PM ET|
Banks attack consumer safeguards
The financial industry and its friends in Congress are trying to gut the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau before it even gets off the ground.
Only one thing is powerful enough to beat special-interest money in Congress, and that's public opinion.
Which is why now is a good time for you to speak up.
Banks are maneuvering to gut the nascent Consumer Financial Protection Bureau before it even gets off the ground.
Yes, the same industry that brought you, among other goodies, a) the subprime mortgage crisis, b) any-time, any-reason rate hikes on your credit cards, c) $39 fees for $1 over-limit charges and d) huge bonuses for insiders while the economy imploded wants to be able to keep unleashing such "financial innovations" on an unsuspecting public.
So the banks have set their sights on crippling the bureau. They've gotten their functionaries in the House of Representatives to craft bills that would:
- Give veto power over the bureau to the same regulators that failed to prevent the last crisis.
- Replace the bureau's single director with a five-member commission, to further dilute its decision-making powers and authority.
- Prevent the bureau from even launching until a Senate-confirmed director is in place, effectively holding the bureau hostage to politics.
Bureau held hostage
The banks' representatives in Congress know the majority of lawmakers wouldn't go along with these shenanigans. Even if the bills passed the House, the changes likely wouldn't make it through the Senate.
So they found a way to go around majority rule to hold the bureau hostage. Forty-four Republican senators, including some who originally voted to create the bureau, now say they won't confirm a director unless major changes are made in the bureau's structure, including instituting the multimember commission, allowing other regulators to have veto power and subjecting the bureau's funding to annual congressional review -- the latter being the best way known to humankind to create a weak and easily intimidated agency.
Make no mistake: This is all about power. Banks are terrified of any regulator that might actually force them to play fair with consumers. Proponents of this nonsense are harrumphing that the bureau is "too powerful," when what they mean is that bureau might actually put the interests of regular people ahead of those of Congress' big donors.
Those trying to kill the bureau try to paint it as a killer of jobs and innovation, when in fact its mandate is to protect people from unsafe and deceptive financial products. Rather than craft more regulations, Elizabeth Warren, who is setting up the bureau at President Barack Obama's request, has made it clear that the bureau will enforce those already on the books and prevent banks from hiding tricks and traps in the fine print.
Warren points out the obvious: Banks and other financial companies have replaced free-market capitalism with "gotcha" capitalism, where consumers are lured in by lowball upfront prices only to be slammed with unexpected and poorly disclosed fees.
If you have any doubt that a real regulator is needed, just look at a recent survey showing most banks failed to produce a list of their fees -- even though federal law has required them to maintain and provide such lists since 1991. If you can't even get a bank to tell you what your checking account will cost, how can you trust it to be honest about the loans it offers or the other financial products it's pushing?
At its core, our recent financial crisis stemmed from risky and deceptive lending practices. Our lawmakers have done little to keep another financial crisis from happening, and now the banks' handmaidens are determined to undo the little that Congress has done.
What astonishes me is that more voters aren't calling their lawmakers on the carpet for this flagrant kowtowing to the financial industry. I guess if you were delighted about the bank bailouts, thought those fat bonus checks to bankers were a great idea and don't care if your government is run for the benefit of Wall Street, then it's OK do nothing.
Otherwise, it's time to contact your lawmakers and tell them to stop trying to kill the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau before it even gets off the ground.
You might say something like this: "I want you to represent my interests, not those of Wall Street. Stop the banks' efforts to gut the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau."
Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.
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