Five years ago today, I ran as fast as I could out of a Senate hearing, through the halls, down a stairway, and out onto the plaza behind the Senate. I looked around wildly, then Senator Dick Durbin waved me over to his car. I jumped in the back, and he yelled, “Hit it!” to his driver, and we shot off.
I had been testifying on behalf of the Congressional Oversight Panel about the TARP Wall Street bailout – a hearing that happened to be scheduled for the same time the President was signing the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill into law. The timing looked impossible (they lock the doors on Presidential events, so you can’t just slide into your seat a few minutes late). Senator Durbin said he’d get me there, but we needed to RUN! So the minute I finished testifying, that’s exactly what I did.
With seconds to spare, I was tucked into my assigned seat next to legendary former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, with Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke next to him. I’d never seen a President sign anything into law, but the ceremony wasn’t what I’d expected. Don’t get me wrong – the President gave a good speech, and both Chris Dodd and Barney Frank showed up, along with Speaker Pelosi, Leader Reid and lots of other folks, so it was plenty grand. But for me, it was all about the moment. One minute, there was no consumer agency, but when the President finished his signature – a new agency was born. And I’d seen it happen.
The new consumer agency was about leveling the playing field, about making sure that families didn’t get cheated in the fine print on mortgages and credit cards and checking accounts and all other kinds of financial dealings.
The financial industry had fought us every inch of the way, spending more than a million dollars a day for over a year. Many times, they declared the agency dead. We didn’t have that kind of money to spend on lobbyists and PR firms – heck, we had hardly any money in comparison – but we didn’t give up. We built an organization from the ground up, and we pulled in allies and grassroots activists from all over the country. It was David-versus-Goliath all the way, and in the fight for the consumer agency, David pulled it off.
And the fight was worth it. The agency went operational four years ago today, and it has handled 650,000 complaints since it opened its doors – some with money back and some with an apology. Mortgages have gotten clearer and easier to read. Work on credit cards, student loans, checking accounts, small-dollar loans, and other products is headed in the right direction. And in that four years, the consumer agency has forced the biggest banks in this country to return more than $10 billion directly to people they cheated.
The CFPB has helped level the playing field, and it has given consumers a tough watchdog who is on their side.
Right now, the Republicans are trying to hamstring the CFPB by slashing its funding, reducing its jurisdiction, and restricting its enforcement authority – steps that would undermine the market by taking financial cops off the beat. Republican presidential candidates have said they would repeal it outright. With no cops, big banks could make more money not by offering better products, but by cheating their customers.
Sure, the big banks and their Republican friends hate it. But the consumer agency is government that works – and it is government worth fighting for.
We got here with your help, and we’ll protect this agency with your help – because together we can build a better future. In fact, we’ve already started.