It's not just the Obama healthcare law that's under siege. The federal agency that protects consumers from financial wrongdoing is also facing the strongest opposition yet to its existence.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a 5½-year-old watchdog and regulatory agency lauded by consumer advocates, is the target of stark criticism and current Congressional legislation to defang or outright kill it. But even if the agency is able to survive the onslaught of detractors, it faces a challenge: Few American consumers appear to know what the CFPB does.

A survey published recently by Creditcards.com, a credit card shopping website, found that 3 out of 4 respondents who knew about the CFPB had favorable opinions about it. But 81 percent of respondents didn't know enough about the agency to have an opinion about it. The survey, of 507 Americans nationwide, was conducted in mid-February among both English and Spanish speakers.

"It's unfortunate that the CFPB has done such good work and hasn’t been well recognized," said Norman Silber, professor of consumer law at Hofstra Law School and a former board member of Consumer Reports. "Its mission is undermined when the work of the agency is not well known." 

In an effort to shed more light on the agency, Consumer Reports examines what the financial watchdog does and why its existence is under threat. 

An Active 5-Year-Old

When it opened for business in July 2011, the CFPB became the first federal agency devoted solely to safeguarding the interests of ordinary consumers in their dealings with banks and other financial institutions. The bureau also consolidated the hodgepodge of consumer-related financial regulation that had been scattered among several federal agencies.    

The brainchild of now-Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the agency was created in 2010 by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, in response to the financial crisis. In its short life, the CFPB has won almost $12 billion in refunds and relief for an estimated 29 million Americans who have been mistreated by financial companies. 

The CFPB establishes and enforces regulations on consumer finance companies. It has targeted mortgage abuses. Because of the agency's action, banks can no longer offer mortgages to people who can't afford to repay them.

The bureau also polices student-loan originators and servicers. In mid-January, the CFPB, along with attorneys general from Illinois and Washington State, sued Navient, the largest U.S. education loan servicer, alleging that Navient cheated student borrowers. Navient has responded that the allegations are unfounded and politically motivated. The case is still pending.

The CFPB has actively punished companies for violating consumer protection laws. Last September, for instance, when employees of Wells Fargo Bank were found to have enrolled thousands of customers in fee-generating bank accounts, credit-card accounts and other services without their consent, the CFPB ordered the banking giant to pay $185 million in customer refunds and penalties.

And in an effort to reach more consumers, the agency hosts an online complaint center where you can report problems with financial institutions and get a CFPB ombudsman to help you get them resolved.

About 25,000 complaints are filed each month about banks, credit-card issuers, mortgage lenders, student-loan servicers and other financial products and services. More than a million complaints have been filed as of year-end 2016.

Pam Banks, senior staff attorney with Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports, said the CFPB was the one entity in the federal government whose only mission was protecting financial consumers. 

“The CFPB stands up for hardworking everyday Americans who play by the rules and expect the same from their financial provider when buying a car, seeking a mortgage, or applying for a credit card," she said. 

On Friday, the CFPB published a list of where consumers can get free FICO credit scores, without having to pay for them. The FICO score is the credit score that most lenders use in lending decisions, but banks were unwilling to provide it free of charge to consumers until the CFPB began pushing them to do so.

The bureau's website is also a good place for consumers to go for answers to their money questions. On its website, cfpb.gov, you can find information on subjects as diverse as managing an older or disabled person's money to financial coaching for veterans transitioning to civilian life.

A Sense of Overreach

But some, including big financial institutions and a number of members of Congress, see the bureau a lot differently. They say the CFPB is a runaway, unaccountable agency whose regulations tie businesses' hands and cost them too much money.

"The Bureau operates as legislature, cop on the beat, prosecutor, judge and jury all rolled into one," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, at a hearing held last spring on the findings of the CFPB's semi-annual report.

Others blame the agency for creating paperwork problems and adding unnecessary costs. CFPB regulations have forced mortgage lenders to do more documentation for every loan, says Alan Kaplinsky, a Philadelphia-based attorney and chair of the consumer financial services group at Ballard Spahr, a law firm that represents banks and other consumer finance companies.

"The costs of doing that are extremely high," he said.

Kaplinsky cites one proposed CFPB rule that would require payday lenders—which provide high-interest, short-term consumer loans—to document that borrowers have the ability to repay.  

Kaplinsky, who represents payday lenders, maintains that complying with the rule would make business unprofitable for 70 percent of the market, driving them out of business.

"If the payday rule became law, consumers who are desperate for money to pay for a health emergency or something else wouldn’t be able to borrow at all," he said. "Or, they could go on the internet to borrow from companies operating unlawfully and pay a lot more money." 

For its part, the CFPB maintains that payday loans too often trap low-income consumers in a vicious borrowing cycle, racking up high fees when they can't repay on time.

Opponents also are critical that the CFPB is led by a single individual, Richard Cordray, who was appointed by President Obama and is not accountable to Congress. They feel his regulatory, enforcement, and supervisory powers over banks and other lenders are too wide-ranging and that he takes them too far. Some are pushing President Trump to remove Cordray from his job.

"There are cases where it’s clear the companies are engaged in an improper practice and he’s on good footing going after them," Kaplinsky said. "But there are a lot of cases where he’s pushing the envelope beyond the law and what he has jurisdiction to enforce."

Rep. Hensarling believes Cordray's activities have actually limited consumer choice.

"Congress has made Mr. Cordray a dictator," the House financial services chairman said at the hearing last year. "And when it comes to the well-being and liberty of American consumers, he is not a particularly benevolent one."

Agency's Fate Is Up in the Air

With President Trump in office and one-party control over Congress, empowered CFPB opponents are lining up to take the agency down. In early February the President signed an executive order that observers say could lead to dismantling portions of Dodd-Frank, including CFPB. While the bureau wasn't mentioned specifically, the order gave the Secretary of the Treasury 120 days to review all "laws, treaties, regulations, guidance, reporting and record-keeping requirements, and other Government policies" related to the financial system to ensure that, among other things, they were "appropriately tailored."

A proposal by Hensarling, a longtime CFPB critic, would keep the bureau, but dull its teeth. Among other changes, the Hensarling initiative would eliminate the CFPB's authority to punish unfair, deceptive, or abusive practices among banks and other lenders; repeal the complaint database; and permit the president to hand-pick—and fire—the bureau's director at will. Currently the director can only be removed for cause.

Sen. Ted Cruz recently introduced the Repeal CFPB Act, which would scrap the bureau entirely. Another Texas congressman, Rep. John Ratcliffe, (R-Texas), has proposed a similar bill in the House.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the agency’s structure is winding its way through the courts.

A defanged or dismantled CFPB would be a major loss for consumers, Banks maintains. "Without the CFPB," she says, "consumers would be left defenseless against those who would treat them unfairly, cheat and abuse them for profit."

Consumers also say they want more marketplace accountability. In a recent CR Consumer Voices Survey, almost two-thirds of respondents said they are either only slightly or not at all confident that banks and investment companies are acting transparently and responsibly to charge reasonable fees and protect their investments.