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Elizabeth Warren defends new consumer financial agency against strong criticism from Republicans

March 16, 2011 |  9:22 am

Elizabeth warren2 Elizabeth Warren, the Obama administration adviser setting up the controversial Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, strongly defended the new agency Wednesday against sharp Republican criticism that it is an unaccountable and dangerous new bureaucracy.

Appearing before a congressional committee for the first time since being appointed to launch the agency last fall, Warren didn't back down as she faced the Republican majority on a House Financial Services subcommittee.

"If we had had this agency six years ago, eight years ago, we would not be in the mess we are today," she said.

Many of the Republicans on the committee opposed creation of the agency and now want to limit its budget and authority. They have opposed Warren's appointment to launch the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and criticized her recent role in negotiations between federal and state officials with mortgage servicers to resolve an investigation into botched foreclosure paperwork because she hasn't been nominated or confirmed by the Senate to head the new agency.

"You have a lot of discretion and a lot of power, but I see very little accountability," said House Financial Services Committee Chairman Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.). Other Republicans slammed the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as a "self-regulated, unchecked body governed by one person" and an agency committed to "consumer restriction" instead of consumer protection.

"What you’re talking about … is preventing people from fulfilling the American dream when they know they can do it," said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.).

But Warren sought to ease fears that the agency would be too heavy-handed, focusing on making mortgages and other financial products simpler to understand.

"The consumer bureau’s mission is straightforward -- make prices clear, make risks clear, so consumers can compare one product to two or three others," Warren said. "Fine print is great for those who want to hide something, but not good for families who want to know what they’re getting into."

As an example, Warren said she wants the agency to merge and simplify the two lengthy mortgage disclosure forms that consumers must sign at closing. . . .

"We’re looking for a one-page mortgage shopping sheet," she said. Such a form would be easier for consumers to understand and cost less for lenders to produce.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was created by last year's overhaul of financial regulations, concentrating consumer protection responsibilities from seven other agencies.

Once it is operational in July, the bureau will be funded directly from the Federal Reserve outside the congressional appropriations process. But until then, the agency's budget comes from the Treasury Department and the House this year voted to cut the budget for the launch to $80 million from $143 million.

Warren said the new agency is funded the the same way as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and other banking regulators -- outside the appropriations process. She argued that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has less power than other federal agencies because its regulations can be voided by a two-thirds vote of other financial regulators on the new Financial Stability Oversight Council.

"It is the only agency in all of government whose rules can be over-ruled, obliterated, wiped out, negated by other agencies," Warren said. "I hope that every time we talk about accountability, we also talk about the accountability of financial institutions, that there will be … a cop on the beat to make sure they follow the law."

Republicans have been particularly critical of Warren's role in negotiations over a settlement with mortgage servicers. Warren said she has provided advice to the Justice and Treasury departments on the settlement because the agency will have authority in July to set standards for mortgage servicing.

But Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) slammed Warren for acting as the agency's director without having been nominated or confirmed as required by the law.

"You have no statutory authority to engage in these matters you're engaging in," he said. "Do you understand why it's controversial?"

President Obama did not nominate Warren, who first proposed a consumer agency in 2007, out of concern Senate Republicans would block her nomination. He appointed her to a dual White House and Treasury advisory position last year to help start the agency, but many Democrats continue to push for her to be nominated as the agency's first director.

"I think you're fighting the good fight," Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) told her. "You’re on the side of the angels. Hopefully, you’ll be nominated and you’ll be confirmed."


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-- Jim Puzzanghera

Photo: Elizabeth Warren testifies before a House Financial Services subcommittee. Credit: Associated Press