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GOP preparing plan to gut consumer protection bureau

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 9, 2017

By Renae Merle The Washington Post

WASHINGTON – A Republican plan to dismantle Wall Street reform would strip the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau of many of its powers, including eliminating its consumer complaint database and scaling back its enforcement powers, according to a five-page memo distributed by Rep. Jeb Hensarling, chairman of the powerful House Financial Services Committee.

The memo obtained by the Washington Post offers the first peek into Republican plans to ease the regulatory burdens faced by big banks due to 2010’s Dodd Frank Act. Sent to other members of the Financial Services Committee on Feb. 6, it outlines changes to legislation Hensarling initially proposed last year, known as the Financial Choice Act. That version of the legislation was immediately denounced by advocacy groups, and is now being revised in light of President Donald Trump’s call for sweeping changes to the way the financial system is regulated.

The original proposal gave large banks a way to avoid tough new regulations by holding significantly more capital. It also eliminated the “Volcker Rule” that prevents banks from using their own money to make risky bets. Those provisions appear to survive in the new version of the legislation, which is slated to be released later this month.

A spokesman for Hensarling did not immediately return a call for comment.

Hensarling appears poised to go even further in attempting to weaken the CFPB, which has been under fire from Republicans for years. The agency’s rule-making authority and enforcement powers would be limited, according to the memo, which also calls for an “elimination of consumer education functions.”

Republicans would drop their bid to have the agency run by a bipartisan commission, rather than a single director. But the director could be fired “at-will” by the president, according to the memo. CFPB is currently run as an independent agency under Richard Cordray.

“CFPB is to be retained and re-structured as a civil law enforcement agency similar to the Federal Trade Commission, with additional restrictions on its authority,” the memo says.

In a column in the Wall Street Journal, Hensarling called the agency “arguably the most powerful, least accountable agency in U.S. history” and proposed finding a way to strip funding from the agency. “The agency defines its own powers and can launch investigations without cause, imposing virtually any fine or remedy, devoid of due process,” said Hensarling, who, along with other Republicans, has called for Cordray to be fired.

A push for such broad changes to Dodd Frank, which took the Obama administration more than a year to pass, is likely to ignite a fierce battle in Congress. Democrats have said Wall Street needs more oversight, not less.

Rep. Maxine Waters, ranking Democrat on the Financial Services Committee, called Hensarling’s plan a “disastrous blueprint” that would “destroy the protections Congress created to stop Wall Street from ripping off hardworking Americans.”

“This new version of the Chairman’s Wrong Choice Act is even worse than the original,” Waters, D-Calif., said in a statement. “This bill makes it crystal clear that Republicans mean to disarm our consumer protections, expose the American public to financial predators, and ultimately steer us in the direction of another Great Depression.”

Hensarling is likely to have enough Republican support to get legislation through the House, but it is expected to be a tougher battle in the Senate. “The Hensarling proposal would transform the bureau from an effective watchdog into a toy poodle,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, ranking Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee, said in a statement.

Banking industry officials, especially those representing big banks, have also been skeptical of making significant changes to Dodd Frank. After spending years and millions of dollars adapting to the new rules, industry officials say they would rather make small tweaks to the law, some of which could be accomplished through regulators, rather than pursue a protracted battle in Congress for new legislation.

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