MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
There's a new cop on the beat. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau opens its doors today. It was created by the financial overhaul law signed by President Obama a year ago. The bureau is supposed to look out for the financial best interests of American consumers. And while that's a popular idea with the public, it remains controversial, as NPR's Tamara Keith reports.
TAMARA KEITH: The idea behind the consumer bureau was simple: If there's an agency to protect consumers from buying an exploding toaster, there should be an agency that protects consumers from signing up for an exploding mortgage.
Professor MICHAEL BARR (University of Michigan): I think what we saw in the financial crisis is we didn't have anybody looking out for American families.
KEITH: Michael Barr is a law professor at the University of Michigan. But before that he worked in the Treasury Department. He was involved in drafting the legislation that created the consumer bureau.
Mr. BARR: We had a whole set of practices that hurt American families and that in the end blew up our financial system and devastated our economy. And that's why we need a consumer bureau to set a level playing field with clear standards, fair rules of the road.
KEITH: But this brand new bureau faces many challenges. For starters, it doesn't have a director. Earlier this week, President Obama nominated Richard Cordray for the job. That same day, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took to the Senate floor with a message for the president.
Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): I would remind him that Senate Republicans still aren't interested in approving anyone to the position until the president agrees to make this massive new government bureaucracy more accountable and transparent to the American people.
KEITH: Today the House will vote on a GOP-backed bill that would restructure the consumer bureau to a form favored by the financial services industry. Among the changes, it would replace the director with a board of directors.
In short, the political fight over this bureau is far from over.
Professor ELIZABETH WARREN (Harvard Law School): Do I worry? You bet I worry.
KEITH: Elizabeth Warren is a special adviser to the treasury secretary. She's been working for the past year to get the bureau up and running.
Prof. WARREN: There are clearly people who want to rip the arms and legs off this agency before it has a chance to help one single family in America. I know that. I get it. They've made it pretty clear. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who really want this agency.
KEITH: Today, the bureau gains oversight over more than 100 of the nation's largest banks when it comes to the consumer products they offer.
Warren says the bureau is operating under one central vision.
Prof. WARREN: We want prices to be clear. We want risks to be clear. We want to make it easy to compare two or three mortgages to each other, two or three credit cards to each other.
KEITH: On mortgages, earlier this year the bureau posted two draft-simplified disclosure forms on its website and asked the public to weigh in on which one was easier to understand. They got more than 13,000 responses.
Now, you might think powerful forces are rising up to fight these changes, but that would be wrong. Scott Talbott is chief lobbyist for the Financial Services Roundtable.
Mr. SCOTT TALBOTT (Financial Services Roundtable): How can you be against simplified disclosures? I mean it benefits the consumer, it benefits the industry, it benefits the entire transaction. It's all good, and the industry supports what the CFPB is doing.
KEITH: In fact, so far Talbott says the industry has been pleased with the direction the bureau is heading.
Mr. TALBOTT: We may not always agree with them. Where we don't, we feel so far we have been able to have good dialogue with them. But at the same time, we haven't really hit the road yet. I mean, we're about to turn the keys and start it up. And it will be out on the road for a test drive.
KEITH: What the industry is worried about is what comes next. Jaret Seiberg is a policy analyst at MF Global's Washington Research Group.
Mr. JARET SEIBERG (Washington Research Group): The agency doesn't have to fulfill the nightmares that the banks have, but until we start to see concrete actions, those nightmares are still going to keep bankers up at night.
KEITH: As for consumers, they probably won't notice a change immediately. But if in the future they go to get a mortgage and the forms are easier to understand, they can probably thank the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington.
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