Consumer advocate feared by financial institutions appears in Baltimore

On Capitol Hill, some lawmakers treat Elizabeth Warren as if she were Public Enemy No. 1.

That's what happens when you're charged with setting up an agency whose purpose is to protect consumers on financial matters — a job that brings you up against supporters of banking interests.

But in Baltimore, where the Harvard law professor spoke at a town hall meeting held by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings last week, she received rock-star treatment. In fact, she was called a "rock star" a few times and received two standing ovations from the overflowing crowd at the Enoch Pratt Free Library auditorium.

Even Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who has focused on the mortgage crisis in his district and beyond, veered from his prepared remarks before Warren's arrival.

"I can't even get over my excitement," he said. "I don't get too excited about many things."

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau officially opens July 21, when seven agencies turn over their consumer-protection duties under 19 federal statutes to the new agency. This will be the first time that consumers will have a federal regulator that puts their interests at the top.

It was Warren's idea to create an agency dedicated to protecting consumers, and her supporters want President Barack Obama to nominate her as its first director. But the director must be approved by the Senate. And Republican opposition therenot only to Warren, but to the new agency itself — has been fierce.

Republicans have introduced a series of bills aimed at weakening the agency and enabling Congress to control its funding. Nearly all Republican senators recently vowed not to confirm anyone — even a fellow Republican — to lead the agency unless the structure was changed to reduce its influence and independence.

Without a director, the bureau's oversight will be more limited.

"The [Consumer Financial Protection Bureau] is truly David, created to defend American consumers against the Goliath that is Wall Street," Cummings told the crowd. He noted that the bureau's maximum budget — $329 million — is less than 1 percent of the $57.7 billion that banks collected in late and overdraft fees last year.

True to her reputation for straight talk, Warren frankly discussed the role of the new agency and the resistance to it.

"We are an agency that was born with enemies — with those who don't want us to exist, who don't want us to be strong, who don't want us to be independent," Warren said.

She said working in Washington has been tough. But Cummings has been an ally, who repeatedly tells her, "I've got your back," she said.

"Without that, there are days I might have given up. I don't know, but I might have," she said.

He certainly had her back at a House oversight subcommittee hearing in May, when Rep. Patrick McHenry, a North Carolina Republican, accused Warren of speaking untruthfully during a testy exchange. Cummings, the senior Democrat on the subcommittee, came to her defense.

"I am trying to be cordial here," Cummings said, "but you just accused the lady of lying."

Warren said the new bureau won't be able to fix everything that is broken in America. But it can clarify all of the complicated documents required for student loans, credit cards, checking accounts, mortgages and other financial products so consumers can better understand them.

"We shouldn't be asked to sign documents that we can't read, that were designed not to be read, that have surprises hidden in the back," she said. "We shouldn't live in a world where the price of what we are getting ready to buy isn't clear, where the risks are hidden from sight."

In 1980, she said, a credit card agreement had 700 words. Now agreements are so complicated, she said, that it is impossible for consumers to make side-by-side comparisons between cards.

She said clear documents also will be good for businesses that play fair but have lost out to predatory companies that disguise the true cost of their products and services.