Obama To Announce Chief For Consumer Agency

The Obama administration is expected to nominate former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The appointment would pass up Elizabeth Warren who pushed for the bureau's creation.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And Im Mary Louise Kelly in for Renee Montagne.

We being this hour with controversy over a new government watchdog agency. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau opens its doors this week. It's supposed to protect consumers from financial fraud.

INSKEEP: And to run it, President Obama has picked former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray. What's maybe more notable here is who the president did not pick. He passed over Elizabeth Warren, who's credited with coming up with the idea of a consumer watchdog agency in the first place.

NPR's Tamara Keith joins us here in the studio to talk about all this a bit more.

Good morning, Tamara.

TAMARA KEITH: Good morning.

KELLY: Alright, so let's start with the man who did get the job, Richard Cordray. What can you tell us about him?

KEITH: And that is pending Senate confirmation. He is the current chief of the bureau's enforcement division. He's a Democrat and took this job after losing his re-election bid last fall. When he was attorney general, I interviewed him about the so-called robo-signing scandal. He was out in front on that. He and other attorneys general were accusing some of the nation's largest banks of improperly foreclosing on homeowners.

Mr. RICHARD CORDRAY (Former Ohio Attorney General): This is not just a fourth-grade student, not quite filling in the oval on a multiple-choice exam. This is fraud. They have submitted affidavits that apparently, that apparently where they swear under oath things that are in fact not true. And they have a lot of exposure here.

KEITH: He was a big player in what became the 50-state investigation into those foreclosure practices. It raised his profile nationally.

Though fun fact year: He also had a national profile back in 1987, when he was a "Jeopardy" to champion.

KELLY: Oh, there you go, alright.

So Elizabeth Warren, who we mentioned was seen as the one to beat for the job; she's a professor at Harvard or has been. She's basically been doing this job, running the agency or its attempts to get going for the last year. Why didn't she get picked for the permanent position?

KEITH: Well, I don't know the details of internal White House deliberations. But I do know that had she been nominated, it would have been a very difficult confirmation, if not impossible. She's a polarizing figure. She is loved by people on the left and by consumer advocates. On the right and in the financial services industry, she's quietly disliked and feared.

Last year the president did appoint her to lead the effort to get the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau up and running. And he did that, making her a special adviser, basically to avoid the confirmation process.

So today Warren backers are disappointed but they do also like Cordray. And Warren herself, in a statement, said that she supports him because he is tough and smart.

KELLY: It sounds like he is still going to face a tough confirmation fight, though. Is that right?

KEITH: Thats absolutely correct. He in many ways is cut from the same cloth as Elizabeth Warren. He's a very strong consumer advocate. And Republicans in the Senate, who basically oppose any confirmation at this point, they're saying it isn't about him or about Elizabeth Warren. They're saying it's about the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

They would like to see it run by a commission, not a director. And they'd also like Congress to have more budget control. So what they're saying is unless the president restructures the bureau, they're not going to approve anyone and they have the votes to prevent that from going through.

KELLY: Tamara, what does all this mean for the bureau itself? It is said to open its doors this week, on Thursday, as we said. There's no way we'll have a director in place at that point.

KEITH: Absolutely no way we'll have a director in place. It means that the bureau is going to have its wings clipped. It will be able to start supervising more than 100 of the nation's largest banks, and it will oversee new credit card rules. But it won't be able to do anything about any of the non-bank financial institutions like payday lenders. And it will have a limited ability to write new rules.

KELLY: Alright. And Elizabeth Warren we mentioned she has been a professor at Harvard. Will she be heading back there or staying in Washington?

KEITH: Yeah, exactly. We hear that she will be going back to Harvard to become Professor Warren once again.

KELLY: Professor Warren once again.

That's NPR's Tamara Keith, thanks so much.

KEITH: Thank you.

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