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The Big-Bank Lobby v. Elizabeth Warren

Amy Traub

$4.6 billion.

According to the analysis of Americans for Financial Reform, that’s the amount the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has returned to over 12 million Americans who have been harmed by the illegal, deceptive, and discriminatory practices of financial services companies. And the agency has only been around for three and half years.

For some in the financial services industry, that type of effective law enforcement is a problem.

Last week, I detailed how the National Labor Relations Board’s push to defend workers’ rights is drawing renewed opposition from industry lobbyists. The story is similar with the CFPB. Apparently being obliged to respect your employees and not rip off your customers can both cut into a profit margin.

If the problem were just sour grapes among corporate lawbreakers, the story might end there. But financial sector lobbying and campaign spending exceeded $1.2 billion for 2014 election cycle. That kind of money puts a broad rollback of Wall Street reforms squarely on the Congressional agenda, with the CFPB among the regulators on the chopping block.

With so much money in play, many aspiring law makers who might have opposed a corporate sellout never make it into office. In their new paper, The Money Chase, my Demos colleagues Adam Lioz and Karen Shanton analyze the way that the high fundraising costs to run a congressional campaign in 2014 erected serious barriers to entry for otherwise qualified candidates. One candidate profiled in their report is Kelly Westlund, who ran an uphill fight against Rep. Sean Duffy in Wisconsin’s 7th congressional district. Opposing an incumbent is often a difficult proposition, but Westlund’s campaign was all the harder due to the significant funding Duffy received from the banking and investment industries. In 2013, Duffy introduced the Consumer Financial Protection Safety and Soundness Improvement Act of 2013, a bill with a sensible-sounding name that in fact would have gutted the agency, throwing consumers to the wolves.

This week, Demos is proud to join Americans for Financial Reform and dozens of other public interest organizations sending a letter calling on members of Congress to oppose any efforts to dismantle, weaken, or change the structure of the CFPB. Congress must not place “narrow industry interests above the vital public interest in regulation of the consumer finance marketplace.” 

Yet the sheer amount of cash from the financial services industry and other corporate players makes me fear for the effectiveness of our public interest appeal to Congress. Money in politics is most assuredly a consumer finance issue.