House Republicans said Wednesday that a new government agency designed to protect consumers from problems with mortgages, credit cards and other lenders has too much power. They also criticized it for participating in a federal-state effort to force mortgage servicers to change the way they foreclose on troubled homeowners.
Testifying to Congress, the White House official assembling the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau made no apologies. Elizabeth Warren said the agency was badly needed and might have helped the country avoid the housing problems it has suffered, including abuses in the ways foreclosures have been processed.
"If there had been a consumer agency in place, the problems in mortgage servicing would have been exposed early and fixed while they were still small, long before they became a national scandal," she told the financial institutions subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee.
The bureau was created by last year's financial markets overhaul law, enacted by President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats over strong GOP opposition. The agency opens its doors on July 21, and Obama has appointed Warren, a Harvard law professor and long-time consumer advocate, to put it together.
Financial Services Chairman Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., said the agency will likely be "the most powerful agency that's ever been created in Washington." He and other Republicans have complained that Congress doesn't control the bureau's budget, that it will be headed by a director and not a bipartisan commission, and that it has strong leeway to decide which financial products it will curb.
"You have a lot of discretion and a lot of power, but I see very little accountability," Bachus said.
"I look at this Congress. We are the voice of the American people," said Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis. "And when we don't have any oversight of what you're doing, I see that as incredibly problematic."
GOP lawmakers also challenged the bureau's role in a push by federal agencies and the 50 state attorneys general to force five large U.S. banks to agree to make it easier for struggling homeowners to avoid foreclosure and rework their mortgages.
They complained that the consumer bureau should not be exercising authority until the agency formally comes into existence.
Warren said the agency will play no role in any formal government settlement with the banks. But she said the bureau has been asked to give advice to government officials involved in the effort and has done so, since it will eventually have authority to set mortgage servicing standards.
"We are not only glad to be helpful, we are proud to be helpful," she said.
Warren has stirred strong opposition among Republicans, and Obama is not expected to nominate her as director because her Senate confirmation would be in doubt. He could appoint her to the job during a congressional recess — which would not require Senate approval but would give her the job only through 2012.
Bachus and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., are preparing to introduce a bill that would replace the director with a five-person commission with members from both political parties.
Hoping to restrict its power, the House voted earlier this year to limit the bureau's budget to $80 million this year, well below the $143 million Obama wants. The Democratic-run Senate and Obama are unlikely to accept that reduction.
The bureau is chiefly designed to give consumers simplified information about financial products and protect them from unfair practices. Priorities Warren considers important include regulating mortgages, credit cards and non-bank financial companies like mortgage brokers, payday lenders and private providers of student loans.
As part of an effort to assuage critics, Warren has met with over 60 members of Congress and dozens of executives of financial institutions, large and small, across the country.
In her prepared testimony, she said the bureau will move next year to a new headquarters across the street from the White House, "to have a very tangible presence for anyone who visits Washington."