WASHINGTON - With his cherubic face, white apron, and racks of sausage links, a neighborhood butcher would seem an unlikely target of White House ire. But Obama administration officials contend the photograph of a butcher is part of a misleading attack on the president's plan to prevent another Wall Street meltdown.
The image is being used by the US Chamber of Commerce, one of the most powerful business organizations in the country, as part of an advertising campaign that criticizes President Obama's proposal for a new consumer protection agency.
Obama says the new arm of government is needed to protect borrowers from the types of risky lending practices that helped trigger the nation's economic crisis. But Wall Street and other US business groups see the proposed new bureau, which would be called the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, as a heavy-handed government intrusion. They have made it a prime target of their opposition to new regulations.
Enter the butcher.
"The economy has made it tough on this local butcher's customers, but now Washington wants to make it tougher on everyone,'' says the Chamber of Commerce ad, which is running online and in Washington-area newspapers as part of a $2 million campaign. It asserts that Obama's proposals would regulate credit relationships between even the smallest business and their customers.
It is a classic Washington strategy, putting a human face on a complicated issue, such as Harry and Louise, the famous but fictional couple deployed by the insurance industry in 1993 to kill health care reform. Chamber of Commerce spokesman Eric Wohlschlegel said the anonymous "butcher'' who appears in advertisements is an image taken from a collection of stock photographs. He declined to identity the man in the ad.
"He could be a butcher. That's not the point,'' Wohlschlegel said. The goal, he said, is to highlight the chamber's belief that small businesses would be subjected to unnecessary regulation.
Democrats supporting the new regulations said the ad's assertion is false, that mom-and-pop stores are not in Washington's regulatory crosshairs. Nonetheless, in response to the allegation, House sponsors plan to insert new language into a sweeping financial regulation bill that will explicitly exclude small-business credit relationships from any new rules.
Obama's economic adviser, former Harvard president Lawrence Summers, compared the Chamber of Commerce effort to the way opponents of health care reform have tried to kill that legislation by putting forward the now-discredited idea that a government panel would decide who lives and dies.
"To suggest that this is about the corner grocery store, when that is not what this legislation says or what we support, is in many ways similar to the ‘death panel' charges,'' Summers, director of the White House's National Economic Council, said in an interview.
The new agency Obama wants to create would be tasked with making sure people receive accurate information about mortgage rates, credit card deals, and other financial products, Summers said. In addition, the agency would have broad authority to monitor lending companies to ensure that they are not using deceptive practices to sell people mortgages that they can't afford. It was the high default rate on so-called subprime loans that played a major role in the economic crisis that came to a head last fall.
In addition to the campaign by the Chamber of Commerce, the American Bankers Association, and the Financial Services Roundtable are also opposing formation of the new consumer protection agency. The groups contend that reform legislation should focus on overseeing financial institutions that have not been regulated; they have also suggested that federal agencies should provide better information to consumers.
"The new regulations are so sweeping and so broad,'' said David Hirschmann, president of the Chamber's Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness, which produced the butcher ad. "We don't think that a consumer financial protection agency actually improves the current regulatory structure.''
The butcher ad is featured on a Chamber-produced website called "Stop the CPFA,'' using the acronym for the proposed agency.
The site urges business owners to write members of Congress in opposition to the bill, providing this suggested language: "The legislation would give the new agency unprecedented authority over millions of businesses across diverse industries that have little to do with consumer finance, and had nothing to do with the financial crisis.''
However, proponents say the Consumer Financial Protection Agency would provide teeth that have been missing from regulatory efforts by agencies that some view as too close to the financial institutions they oversee.
"The way you get a level playing field to protect consumers is to establish an agency that has protection of consumers as a focus,'' Summers said.
Few Republicans are expected to support the Obama financial regulations overhaul. It is expected to pass in the House later this year, but its fate in the Senate is unclear. The bill also would impose new regulations on hedge funds, increase regulation of trading in complex derivatives, and give the government power to take control of large, troubled companies when they threaten to damage the economy.
Representative Barney Frank of Newton, who is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee and a key author of the bill, said the butcher ad is a spurious campaign by a business group that he said wants to maintain the regulatory status quo, even in the aftermath of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
Frank said that the business groups know there is no intention to target people such as the local butcher. Still, to take the issue off the table, Frank said his version of the legislation would include a clause that makes clear which types of businesses are affected.
Heather Booth, who heads a coalition supporting the legislation called Americans for Financial Freedom, said it is "unthinkable'' that financial institutions would oppose efforts to protect consumers after last year's crisis. Booth said the butcher advertising campaign was reminiscent of the way the Chamber waged a 1977 campaign against the creation of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The Chamber's effort failed, and the product safety commission has since become an integral part of American life, exemplified by its warnings about small toys that could choke babies. Advocates of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency said it would serve a similar function, ensuring that people don't unwittingly get stuck with bad financial products.
"This should be motherhood and apple pie,'' Booth said.
But Hirschmann said problems within the financial system can be solved without creating another agency, saying disclosures about loan terms can be provided by other means. "Our view is the best thing for consumers is to give them clear information,'' he said.