THE BLOG
05/25/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Who's Afraid of the Bark? We Need Some Bite!

The National Council of La Raza (NCLR) has long pushed members of the Senate Banking Committee to establish a strong, independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA). Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) did the right thing on Monday by moving the bill out of his committee and closer to the Senate floor, but the bill still lacks the authority it needs to take on the industry's worst offenses.

Most consumers do not stand a chance against a big bank, its fees and fine print, and its automated customer service lines. Over the last decade, banks have slowly changed their business models to rely on accounts and loans that operate like fee-producing engines, rather than on sound banking principles. Answering Wall Street's call, they came up with inventive ways to drive up their bottom lines and bonuses while pushing millions of Americans to the financial edge. Average families need someone in their corner to ensure that innovation is used to help them build wealth rather than strip them of their last penny.

An autonomous CFPA would create rules with the consumer in mind. It would also have the authority to enforce those rules when lenders violate them. At least it should. Right now, this is a sticking point in the Senate bill. While the plans for the proposed CFPA pave the way for greater consumer protections, the Senate's version doesn't give CFPA all the tools necessary to hold financial institutions accountable. While the CFPA is poised to create rules, it will not have the authority to enforce them.

Enforcement is essential. Imagine being a parent who could establish rules for your 16-year-old about driving but wouldn't be able to take away the keys if he caused a wreck or broke curfew. Or imagine what would happen if you rewarded a child for bullying on the playground in the hope that they would eventually learn from the good behavior of the other children. It's not hard to predict the outcomes. You wouldn't have a way to rein in your young driver and would only have carrots to encourage bullies to be better playground citizens.

Indeed, we had rules of the road that could have been useful during the bubble years. What's more, the Federal Reserve had the power to write new ones to keep pace with industry's ever-evolving bag of tricks. The problem was that there was no reliable enforcer and no one was willing to push back on the bank lobby when their practices got out of control. Regulators were quick to protect the fee engines and sat on their hands while consumers were put through the wringer.

With CFPA as an enforcer, we would be able to finally zero in on the injustices committed against families and their precious few assets. If built on a sturdy enough foundation, the CFPA would stand as the sole agency that protects generations of our wealth from falling prey to market greed. Senator Dodd's bill takes a good first step for consumers facing the reckless practices of big banks, but more needs to be done to ensure true bank accountability. Without a strong consumer rights enforcer, modest-income families and communities of color in particular will continue to be wholly exposed to the self-interested whims of the mammoth financial community.

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