What the heck is the consumer protection bureau?

July 25, 2011: 4:50 PM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is having a tough time reaching the very people it is aiming to protect -- consumers.

Even though Democrats and Republicans have taken passionate -- and opposing -- positions on the new agency and its powers, consumers don't really know what to make of it. In a CNN/ORC International poll of 1,009 adult Americans, 80% of respondents said they didn't know enough about the bureau to form a negative or positive opinion about the agency.

Of those who did have an opinion, 11% said their view was generally positive, while 9% held a negative view.

The bureau, which officially launched last week, has been trying to get its message out to the public for the past year. It has an active Twitter feed, Facebook page, Flickr channel as well as an interactive web site with YouTube videos, a blog and places for visitors to post comments and suggestions for the agency.

"One of the CFPB's top priorities is to communicate substantively and frequently across a wide range of industry and consumer group sectors," the agency said in a recent progress report. "Elizabeth Warren and agency staff have traveled across the country to listen to and learn from the hopes, fears, and concerns of industry and consumer groups."

However, it's difficult to determine just how much the new bureau will actually be able to do. Republicans have been actively trying to limit the bureau's power by advocating deep cuts in funding and blocking a director from being confirmed.

Meet the new consumer watchdog

Republicans like Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama argues that the bureau will ban certain financial products and provide so many restrictions that lenders will be unable to price in the risks of less creditworthy customers, and therefore won't extend any credit to them at all.

Democrats say it's time for the little guy to have an advocate, and that the bureau has been put into place to help consumers make better decisions and avoid getting duped by predatory lenders.

But so far, the bureau hasn't been able to propose any concrete rules to crack down on these lenders, making it difficult for consumers to understand just what form this "protection" will take.

"I do not understand this," one CNNMoney reader wrote. "Why do you need an organization and dump millions just to keep up with the overhead if they have limited power[?]"

The lack of understanding by the public could pose a problem for the bureau, which plans to rely heavily on consumer feedback to make important decisions. The new mortgage disclosure form it is creating, for example, is being modified and finalized based on comments from consumers who visit the agency's web site. But if the majority of consumers don't understand what the bureau even is -- and don't know enough to think of it as a positive development -- the feedback could be limited.

"The Bureau aims to actively engage all stakeholders that could potentially be affected by the agency, with the understanding that there is much insight to be gained from varied perspectives that represent many distinct points of view," the bureau said in its progress report.

At a time when the government can't even come to an agreement to keep from defaulting on its massive debt, some consumers wonder why the government should spend money on an agency that's powers may become so watered down that it is ineffective.

"Great, another government bureau we can't afford. Keep'em coming," one CNNMoney reader commented, while another said, "Some watchdog. The Republicans have already pulled its teeth and neutered it."

But others remain hopeful that the new bureau will make a difference.

"If you can experience the 2008 financial meltdown and respond by saying, 'we really don't need more protection from the financial sector,' then you are truly, truly lost," another reader wrote. To top of page

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