Some names to lead Consumer Bureau start to circulate

The Obama administration will have numerous tasks to ramp up once the Senate clears a conference report on the financial services overhaul, which could come as early as Thursday.

At the top of the list is who to appoint as director of a new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, the watchdog against unfair and abusive home mortgages, credit cards and other credit products.

The frontrunner appears to be Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard University law professor who first broached the idea of such an agency in a journal article for Democracy three years ago. She has been the leading advocate for the agency throughout the debate on the legislation.

"My first choice is Elizabeth Warren," House Financial Services Committee Chairman Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., said Wednesday. "She is a brilliant advocate. She is sensible. She has a good sense how to operate. She is not some windmill-tilting ideologue." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., appointed her in 2008 to lead the Congressional Oversight Panel monitoring the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

Warren's selection, though, would likely trigger opposition from the banking community, which privately grumbles she doesn't understand the industry, and GOP senators. While not referring to Warren, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., has voiced fears the agency will be led by those with a social justice mission, rather than one promoting stability in the banking system.

"She will be controversial to get through the Senate," said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for U.S. PIRG. But she also would be his first pick. "Any nominee for this agency, the industry will try to slow down the vote, slow walk the nominee no matter how perfect their resume."

Another possibility is Michael Barr, assistant Treasury secretary for financial institutions. Barr was one of three primary administration negotiators during the overhaul talks, and is an expert in behavioral economics.

"Michael has been the policy and political architect, so he deserves credit for that," Mierzwinski said. Other possibilities include Eric Stein, deputy Treasury secretary for consumer protection and Allen Fishbein, a consumer affairs adviser at the Federal Reserve, where the bureau will be housed.

The bureau will have authority to define the businesses under its supervision, determine if it should limit the use of mandatory predispute arbitration, and determine what is considered an abusive act that would be prohibited.

"It's starting with almost a blank slate. The first people working there will have a disproportionate effect because they will establish precedent that will drive how the agency acts many years in the future," said Douglas Elliott, an analyst at the Brookings Institution.

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