One of the GOP's most reliable fundraising pitches in the run-up to the 2006 mid-term elections was a vision of Democrat Barney Frank as the chair of the House Financial Services Committee. The gay congressman from Massachusetts was supposed to be the devil incarnate for the credit card and banking industry. Now that Frank has actually taken over the committee, though, one group he really seems to have pissed off is a bunch of liberal consumer advocates unhappy with his efforts to address the meltdown of the subprime lending industry.
Frank spoke this morning to lawyers gathered at the National Consumer Law Center's annual convention. These are the folks who are on the front lines, in Legal Aid offices and elsewhere, trying to help people save their homes and fend off bankruptcy brought on by predatory lending. For 12 years, Republicans in Congress basically ignored them, so you'd think they'd be thrilled with the new chairman, who at least takes their calls. Instead, many of the lawyers are furious with Frank because they think his new mortgage bill threatens to make some matters worse for individual consumers.
Frank is putting the finishing touches on a bill designed to rein in abusive lending, but the consumer lawyers think it's simply window dressing that won't solve the problem. They're primarily concerned that it would even make it harder for consumers to get relief when a lender breaks the proposed new law. That's because the bill would invalidate many of the state consumer protection acts the lawyers rely on to help clients and hold big finance firms accountable for making predatory lending so profitable. Not only that, but the bill would actually defang some new lending rules coming down the pike from the Federal Reserve and provide aggrieved consumers with fewer remedies than they had before. (Read here for a more thorough discussion of the law's shortcomings.)
The lawyers heaped criticism on one of Frank's staffers, who appeared later in the morning with a counterpart from the Senate to brief the group on consumer issues in the new Congress. While the staffers' remarks were off the record, they took the licking in stride. Without openly advocating lobbying, they essentially told the lawyers that if they wanted a better bill, they'd better get on the horn and call their respective members of Congress and yell at them about it. "It's all about the votes," one said. Afterwards, a prominent California attorney declared ruefully, "We'd be better off if the Republicans had stayed in."