GOP House votes to limit new consumer protection bureau

The House on Thursday evening approved legislation that would make it easier to restrain the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) from issuing regulations that Republicans have warned could interfere with the safe operation of U.S. financial markets.

Over strenuous Democratic objections, the House approved H.R. 1315, the Consumer Financial Protection Safety and Soundness Improvement Act, by a 241-173 vote. Consistent with the partisan debate on Thursday, only 10 Democrats joined every Republican but one in supporting the bill.

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The White House already has threatened to veto the legislation, and Senate Democrats are not expected to consider it.

The bill was approved exactly one year to the day that the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act became law, and on the same day that the CFPB began operating. The bureau was created in response to the financial meltdown three years ago, which Democrats argue was caused in large part by unscrupulous lending practices.

Under current law, the CFPB has the authority to regulate financial markets in ways meant to improve consumer protection. It can be overruled by a two-thirds majority vote of the Financial Stability Oversight Council, which is made up of federal banking and financial regulators.

Under the bill approved today, the Council could overturn CFPB regulations with a simple majority vote, and would be required to overturn regulations that it finds inconsistent with the sound operations of U.S. financial institutions. It also would create a five-member board to replace the single CFPB director, which Republicans said would help remove partisanship from the bureau.

Democrats spent much of Thursday arguing that these changes would undermine the CFPB by giving more power to banking regulators, which they said could be expected to side with the banks they regulate. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee, and the Frank in Dodd-Frank, said the Republican bill is the start of efforts to repeal last years law entirely.

This is as close as they dare come now, because of public opinion, to abolishing the whole agency,” Frank said. They want to weaken it, and then they will want to undercut it altogether.

Frank cited an interview that committee Chairman Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) gave on CNBC Thursday. He quoted Bachus as saying that Republicans worry about an agency whose sole goal is to benefit consumers without considering how doing so affects the stability of our financial institutions.

The position of the Republican party is that there is a serious danger that we will over-protect the consumer, Frank concluded. Thats an extraordinary fear to have. Indeed, that is not a fear, that's a phobia. It is based on unreality.

But Bachus took the floor later in the debate to argue that Republicans are not trying to kill the agency, and argued that Democrats were in favor of many of the proposals that the GOP is putting forward in H.R. 1315.

For example, he argued that Democrats initially proposed a commission to run the CFPB rather than have a single director, but then changed their position.

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A bipartisan commission is exactly what the Democrats proposed and passed out of the House,” Bachus said in a statement released earlier this week. So they were for a commission before they were against it. Our bill, which includes the Democrats idea of a bipartisan commission, simply promotes greater accountability and transparency at the CFPB — an agency that will have more than 1,000 federal employees and a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Rep. Shelley Capito (R-W.Va.), who managed much of the debate on the bill, also said Republicans are not trying to kill the CFPB, and are instead trying to make helpful modifications to the new bureau.

None of this bill undoes any of the bureaus ability to undo deceptive and abusive practices, she said. We certainly think … thats a laudable goal. We dont like the way its maybe been constructed, but we lost that fight. The reality is this bureau is here, and so lets make it better.

The House turned away most Democrat-sponsored amendments to moderate the bill, including proposals to restore the two-thirds majority vote need in the Council to overturn CFPB decisions.

One amendment from Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) would have allowed the CFPB to operate under the authority of the Treasury if there was no Senate-confirmed director in place. Democrats argued several times that Senate Republicans have vowed to block President Obamas decision to nominate Richard Cordray to lead the CFPB.

But Maloneys amendment also was rejected, leaving intact the bills language that would establish a five-person commission to head the bureau.

Other less substantive amendments were accepted, including one that would prevent members of the Council from voting on a CFPB regulation if it would affect a banking institution at which the person was employed within the last two years.

Debate on this language grew testy as Capito said Republicans opposed it because it could limit the availability of talent to serve on the CFPB. When sponsor Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said his language would only result in limited exclusions, Capito said she still opposed it, but offered no reason why.

As she ended her comments, she could be heard saying DeFazios language really isnt a bad amendment. Frank then rose to complain that Republicans did not seem to have any principled reason for opposing the language at all.

Thats an inappropriate way to deal with a serious issue, he said. DeFazios amendment was ultimately approved by voice vote.