While a key Democrat has been wobbling in his support for an agency to protect financial consumers, President Obama and members of his administration have recently come out strongly in support.
The Obama administration’s abandonment of the public option in the health care debate provides a grim omen for the financial reform battle.
Some have compared the public option to the Consumer Financial Protection Agency. Both enjoyed broad public support but have been fiercely opposed by the businesses they would challenge: insurance companies fought hard against the public option while financial institutions fiercely oppose the consumer protection agency.
Aside from industry opposition, the public option and the CFPA shared the potential to provide a shield for consumers against abuses.
At various times, the president also supported the public option. Today his spokesman said the public option just didn’t have the votes. But that assessment was something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s little evidence that President Obama put much pressure on legislators in support of the public option, and his ambiguity in public didn’t help it, either.
After initially supporting the public option, the president signaled it was not a crucial aspect of health-care reform.
But the public option offered the only potential check on the insurance companies, which are about to get a glut of new customers forced to buy policies from them. Democrats are suggesting a tepid combination of subsidies and insurance cooperatives that won’t provide meaningful accountability for the insurance companies.
Now Republicans are digging in their heels in opposition to the CFPA, with the usual rhetoric about wasteful government bureaucracy. It’s nothing but a thinly disguised fundraising pitch to woo the financial industry back from Democrats. Chris Dodd, soon to be retired head of the Senate Banking Committee, has suggested the consumer protection function might co-exist within some other agency. That’s a very bad idea. Just look at how much consumer protection the Federal Reserve, Treasury Department and other agencies accomplished in the housing bubble and its aftermath.
If that’s not enough to convince you, look at the recent shenanigans by banks and credit card companies piling on new fees.
The New York Times reported this morning how banks are getting ever more aggressive in socking their customers with higher over-draft protection fees. Credit card companies, even in the face of new regulations, are finding new ways to gouge their customers, charging fees for paying off your card on time, or even charging fees for not using a card.
There’s nothing stopping the Treasury and the Fed from using their bully pulpits to rail against these continuing abuses now. But they don’t. They ignored warnings about predatory lending during the housing bubble and have shown no stomach for protecting consumers since the economic collapse.
Dodd is supposed to unveil his latest version of financial reform this week. Let President Obama and your senators know that you won’t be fooled by financial reform in name only. Whether President Obama is capable of staying the course we don’t know. But we do know we need a strong, independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency.