Building the New Consumer Bureau

By Elizabeth Warren

Congress is due to hold its first oversight hearing Wednesday about the startup of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created last year to be the top cop on the beat for consumer financial issues.

Oversight is crucial. In fact, the central idea behind this bureau was to increase government accountability by consolidating core consumer financial protection functions that had been scattered across seven federal agencies. Now, one agency will have a principal mission to make the market work for all Americans – and to be accountable while doing it.

This is how oversight begins – with a clear purpose and someone who can be held responsible. That’s why I am looking forward to testifying for the first time.

The consumer bureau’s mission is to make sure consumers have the information they need – upfront, not buried in fine print – to make the best choices about mortgages, credit cards and other financial products and services. Consumers’ personal responsibility is, of course, critical. But prices and risks must be straightforward, consumers should be able to make apples-to-apples comparisons among two or three products.

We have spent substantial time meeting with and listening to ideas and concerns from many different interests – including state attorneys general and banking supervisors, consumer advocates, trade associations and chief executive officers of large financial institutions. The time we have spent with small financial institutions has been particularly valuable. (I wrote about this in an earlier POLITICO Opinion article.) I have also now had more than 60 one-on-one conversations with members of Congress, briefing each on the consumer bureau and listening closely to their concerns.

We recently launched our ConsumerFinance.gov website. It is a bare-bones version, five months ahead of schedule. But we wanted to put in plain view as much as possible about how we are building this agency.

We have already received hundreds of responses as part of our “open for suggestions” campaign, and we have posted videos from our staff addressing many of the most frequent comments.

To build the new consumer bureau, we have begun assembling a team of strong, experienced leaders and other capable staff. Already, we have a diverse group of about 175 from a wide variety of backgrounds – industry, consumer and civil rights groups, military service, government and academia. We have people in their first jobs and people who had retired and decided to return for one more job – and lots in between.

Our new Office of Servicemember Affairs is already at work, monitoring the marketplace. Congress created this office because service members and their families are too often targeted by unscrupulous lenders. Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Clifford Stanley has written that finances are the second-largest cause of increasing stress to service members and their families – more than deployments, health, life events and war.

Under Holly Petraeus’s leadership, the office is advancing an agenda that will help service members stay focused on their missions. Specifically, the office will focus on military family financial-readiness education, complaint and response monitoring and coordination among federal and state agencies of consumer protection measures for military families.

In addition to the various mechanisms that ensure oversight of our activities under the Dodd-Frank bill, we have taken other steps to make the consumer bureau more transparent. Each month, we post my schedule online to help Americans see what we are doing. In December, we began releasing drafts of our organizational chart, so outside groups can understand who we are and where we’re headed.

We also plan to post quarterly updates on our spending and other information about our budget, funding and work force planning in the days ahead.

Our early policy efforts provide an additional window into where the consumer bureau is heading. Last month, the consumer bureau held a conference on the first anniversary of the time many provisions of the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act took effect. We met with both industry leaders and consumer advocates to examine the impact of the law.

With help from many sources, we were able to document a sharp decline in the over-limit and penalty fees that families pay and a surprising resurgence in credit card offers. This effort was an early step in our commitment to be a data-driven agency.

The consumer bureau is hard at work putting the pieces in place to make the consumer finance markets work better for all Americans. We look forward to sharing our progress with Congress and the American people – and to continuing the conversation.

Elizabeth Warren is an Assistant to the President and Special Adviser to the Treasury Secretary on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

This article originally appeared in POLITICO under the headline “Building the New Consumer Bureau .”