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C. Fraser Smith: ‘Rock star’ challenges banks, Wall Street

People are hurting.

They’re struggling to keep their houses.

They’re fighting off slick operators who promise, for a fee, to reduce their debt but then disappear with the money.

Many Americans are unemployed. Are they apt to pay bills late or overdraw their checking accounts? Are the banks taking advantage?

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings says we are witnessing an unprecedented and almost unopposed attack on the American middle class. The poor are not even in the conversation.

With few exceptions, the plight of suffering people gets no attention in Washington. All the urgency goes into spending cuts. Stagnant wages and ripping off consumers is okay as long as we don’t raise taxes.

During a town hall meeting last week at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, a full auditorium heard a panel of Cummings’ constituents and community advocates outline the continuing problems.

The room was packed. Cummings knew he wasn’t the only draw. People are looking for someone with the courage to fight back on their behalf. They’re not looking to the government. People have always been skeptical of government, but we may be looking at a historic loss of confidence in our leaders.

A very special guest

Then the congressman introduced his special guest, professor Elizabeth Warren, one of the few government figures who inspires any confidence or hope.

Robin McKinney, of the Maryland CASH Campaign, which works to pull people back from the brink of financial catastrophe, triggered one of several standing ovations when she said, “Professor Warren, you are a rock star.”

Because she probably could not be confirmed by an obscenely partisan and gridlocked U.S. Senate — many of whose members are fighting to kill the consumer protection agency — President Obama has made Warren his special assistant in charge of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

“This is a nasty game that’s going on,” Warren said. It’s as if banks and Wall Street are the real constituents of Congress.

Confirmation of an agency head matters immensely, she said. Check cashing and payday loan operators can operate free of regulation now. A consumer agency with a confirmed director could level the playing field. Are the banking lobbyists winning by convincing senators to oppose not just Warren but any director candidate?

Fighting the good fight

A Congress beholden to businesses for campaign contributions — bought and paid for by financial interests, one audience member shouted — thickens the atmosphere of disgust and cynicism. But, Warren said, the president, Congressman Cummings and others should get credit for fighting the good fight, for passing such a bill.

The system is not without its defenders — and, however occasionally, gets it right.

When Warren arrived in Washington from Harvard, where she teaches contract law, she said she had one question: “Is there no one here who actually wants to get something done?”

She’s asked the question loudly and persistently enough to become a rock star to those with little clout. The new agency, she said, will try to create a climate in which, when a consumer signs a contract, he or she will be able to answer two questions: Can I afford it? Is this the best available deal?

“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.

Warren urged the audience to go online in support of the agency.

The survival of this agency — definitely in doubt — is critical, Cummings said. The recession will probably end. There are halting signs of recovery.

But will the poor and the middle class still be targets of predatory, unregulated behavior?

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.