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Of candidates and consumers, Big Bird, binders and bayonets

Daniel Ray

We’ve had binders full of women, Big Bird and bayonets, but until Saturday, hardly a peep has been uttered by the presidential candidates about consumer protection.

With his weekly radio address Saturday, President Obama broke the near-silence on the topic. He touted the recent work of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in beginning to regulate credit bureaus, and in winning multimillion-dollar awards from credit card issuers over business practices unfavorable to consumers.

The CFPB is the consumer watchdog agency born in July 2011 out of the Wall Street reform act known as Dodd-Frank; it enforces a variety of consumer financial protection laws, including the Obama administration’s other signature consumer protection law, the Credit CARD Act of 2009.

“The companies that put your credit score together can make mistakes,” Obama said in his address. “They may think you had a loan or a credit card that was never yours. They may think you were late making payments when you were on time. And when they mess up, you’re the one who suffers.

“Until this week, if you had a complaint, you took it to the company. Sometimes they listened. Sometimes they didn’t. But that was pretty much it. They were your only real hope.

“Not anymore. If you have a complaint about your credit score that hasn’t been properly addressed, you can go to and let the consumer watchdog know. Not only will they bring your complaint directly to the company in question, they’ll give you a tracking number, so you can check back and see exactly what’s being done on your behalf.

“For example, alongside other regulators, they recently ordered three big credit card companies to return more than $400 million to folks who were deceived or misled into buying things they didn’t want or didn’t understand.” (The companies were Discover, Capital One and American Express.)

Where Obama praises the benefits of consumer protection, his Republican rival Mitt Romney recoils at the cost: The still-growing agency now employs 950 and will run through about $450 million this year.

He has said little directly about the topic on the stump, although he has said he would “repeal and replace” Dodd-Frank if elected. Romney has also hewed the Republican line on the consumer bureau, saying it wields too much power, should be held more accountable via congressional budget approval and some of its powers should also be transferred to other agencies.

His economic policy director, Pierce Scranton, gave some additional clarity in an interview with McClatchy Newspapers’ Lindsay Wise, published Oct. 15. “It’s certainly on the table that the powers of the CFPB would be reallocated, but I don’t think that we’re saying anything that would be interpreted as completely dissolving the CFPB,” Scranton said.

He described the bureau’s regulations as meddlesome, particularly to smaller financial institutions. “I think it’s added such a burden and such confusion that people don’t even know what they’re supposed to comply with, and that’s particularly hard if you’re a smaller institution and you don’t have an army of lawyers to tell you how to do it,” he said.

I’m glad to see the discussion, even if it is late. I’m about to enter my 15th year as a personal finance editor, and the past four years have seen more pro-consumer activity from the federal government than the 10 prior years combined. If you like the additional protection, that’s one more reason to vote for Obama. If you don’t think we can afford them, it’s another reason for voting for Romney.

Whichever way you lean, the issues involved hit every consumer’s pocketbook, and deserve a lot more air time than binders or bayonets.

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