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Gentle grilling greets new consumer banking watchdog

Recess appointee says he seeks ‘fair shake’ for business, public

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Congressional Republicans gave President Obama's new consumer finance watchdog a relatively gentle grilling in his first public hearing on Capitol Hill, despite lingering distrust about the agency he heads and anger with Mr. Obama's decision to use his recess appointment power earlier this month to install him in his post.

Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) Chairman Richard Cordray told lawmakers he hoped to work with them on simplifying financial products as a way to offer a "fair shake" to consumers and honest businesses.

But there were no fireworks and few sharp exchanges during the 2 1/2-hour hearing.

"It's my hope that there won't be any long-term controversy on your appointment," Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, told Mr. Cordray. "I'm not asking you to act as if you were not appointed. I want you to act as if you were appointed. I think that's your responsibility."

Mr. Issa at one point did ask Mr. Cordray if he had made any provisions to restrict his actions in case an expected legal challenge to his appointment is upheld.

For his part, Mr. Cordray told the subcommittee that he was not looking to take a confrontational approach while working with banks and financial firms to improve services and clarity for consumers.

"It ... is not our intention to start going off and acting like we're some sort of mini-Congress, just doing anything we think is good and right," he said at one point, saying such an approach would only cause confusion in the marketplace.

Mr. Cordray, a former Ohio state attorney general whose nomination never reached the Senate floor, said his goals are to clarify the prices and risks of financial products and services, benefit honest businesses by leveling the playing field, and strengthen the nation's economy.

"Look, in my lifetime the single thing that hurt people most was the financial crisis," Mr. Cordray said. "I think we can help head that off in the future, and if so, that would be a very good thing."

Mr. Cordray said his agency also wants to bring financial firms that are outside the regulatory orbit under scrutiny.

"We had a broken regulation of the mortgage market, where some were regulated, others were not," he explained. "It is unfair for one business to be subject to regulation and oversight and their competitor to be subject to none."

The White House and CFPB remain under fire from the GOP and major business groups over both the agency's powers - set up under the 2010 financial regulatory overhaul law - and the circumstances of Mr. Cordray's appointment. Critics argue that the agency doesn't have enough accountability and have called for a bipartisan board that would prevent one unelected director from wielding too much power.

Senate Republicans said their fight was not with Mr. Cordray personally, admitting he was qualified to run the agency. But private business groups say they are planning a court challenge to the constitutionality of Mr. Obama's recent recess picks.

In a show of support, consumer groups and congressional Democrats staged a rally on Capitol Hill before Tuesday's hearing began.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, New York Democrat, told the gathering: "I believe if they want to roll back the CFPB, they should put it to the floor for a vote."

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