Consumer agency’s path to be set by first chief

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More than 400 pages of legislation detail the duties and powers of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that Congress is set to create. But the first director of the powerful new agency will play a critical role in determining how it works.

“Whoever is in command will determine the agency’s path,” said Kathleen Engel, a Suffolk University law professor who sits on the Federal Reserve’s Consumer Advisory Council. “When you have a lot of power vested in an agency, everything depends on how effectively they carry out their rulemaking authority.”

Once under way, the agency is likely to be the most visible manifestation to consumers from the extensive financial-regulatory legislation expected to clear Congress next week. It will write rules on checking accounts, credit cards and mortgages. It will field complaints from the public about lending practices. It will enforce its rules across the economy, from big banks to credit counselors—though not auto dealers, which won’t fall under the agency’s supervision, after much lobbying.

The president’s choice of a director, subject to Senate confirmation, is almost certain to be controversial, given the power of the position and the fight over whether to create the agency in the first place.

Like Joseph Kennedy Sr., the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the new director will shape the powerful agency’s public image, initial priorities and starting lineup.

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