The biggest no-brainer of finance reform was supposed to be the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The idea was simple: create a federal agency whose sole mission would be to make sure that financial lenders don't rape their customers with defective products, unjust fees and other fine-print nightmares familiar to any American with a credit card. In theory, the CFPB would rein in predatory lending by barring lenders from making loans they know that borrowers won't be able to pay back, either because of hidden fees or ballooning payments.
Wall Street knew it would be impossible to lobby Congress on this issue by taking the angle of "We're a rapacious megabank that would like to keep skull-fucking to death our customers using incomprehensible and predatory loans." So it came up with another strategy – one that deployed some of the most inspired nonsense ever seen on the Hill. The all-powerful lobbying arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has been fierce in its representation of Wall Street's interests throughout the War for Finance Reform, cued up a $3 million ad campaign implying that the CFPB, instead of targeting asshole bankers in flashy suits and hair gel, would – and this isn't a joke – target your local butcher, making it hard for him to lend you the money to buy meat. That's right: The ads featured shots of a squat butcher with his arms folded, standing in front of a big pile of meat. "The economy has made it tough on this local butcher's customers," the ad reads. "So he lets some of them run a tab and pay the bill over time to make ends meet. But now Washington wants to make it tougher on everyone." After insisting – falsely – that this kindly butcher would be subject to the new consumer protection bureau, the ad warns that the CFPB "would also have the ability to collect information about his customers' financial accounts and take away many of their financial choices."
Sitting in the Senate chamber one afternoon not long before the vote, I even heard Sen. Mike Enzi, an impressively shameless Republican from Wyoming, insist that the CFPB would mean that "anyone who has ever paid for dental care in installments could be facing the prospect of paying for dental care upfront." Other anti-reform ads claimed that everyone from cabinetmakers to electricians would be hounded by the new agency – even though the CFPB's mandate explicitly excludes merchants who are "not engaged significantly in offering or providing consumer financial products or services."
The CFPB was always a pretty good bet to pass in some form. Just as pushing through anything that could plausibly be called "health care reform" was a political priority for the Obama administration, creating a new agency with the words "consumer protection" in the title was destined from the start to be the signature effort of the finance bill, which is otherwise mostly a mishmash of highly technical new regulations. But that didn't stop leading Democrats from doing what they could to chisel away at the thing. Throughout the process, Chris Dodd, the influential chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, has set new standards for reptilian disingenuousness – playing the role of stern banker-buster while taking millions in Wall Street contributions. Dodd worked overtime trying to craft a "bipartisan" bill with the Republican minority – in particular with Sen. Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican on the committee. With his dyed hair, porcine trunk and fleshy, powdery-white face, Shelby recalls an elderly sumo wrestler in drag. I happened to be in the Senate on the day that Shelby proposed a substitute amendment that would have stuffed the CFPB into the FDIC, effectively scaling back its power and independence. Throughout the debate, I was struck by the way that Dodd and his huge black caterpillar eyebrows kept crossing the aisle to whisper in Shelby's ear. During these huddles, Dodd would gently pat Shelby's back or hold his arm; it was like watching a love scene in a Japanese monster movie.
Shelby's amendment was ultimately defeated by a vote of 61-37 – but he and Dodd still reached a number of important compromises that significantly watered down the CFPB. The idea was to rack up as many exemptions as possible for favored industries, all of which had contributed generously to their favorite senators. By mid-May, Republicans and Democrats had quietly agreed to full or partial "carve-outs" for banks with less than $10 billion in deposits, as well as for check-cashers and other sleazy payday lenders. As the bill headed toward a vote, there was also a furious fight to exempt auto dealers from anti-
predatory regulations – a loophole already approved by the House – even though car loans are the second-largest source of borrowing for Americans, after home mortgages. The purview of the CFPB, in essence, was being limited to megabanks and mortgage lenders. That's a major victory in the war against Wall Street, but it will be hard to be too impressed if Congress can't even find a way to vote for consumer protection against used-car salesmen.
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