Mick Mulvaney took his seat before a congressional committee Wednesday for the first time since his controversial appointment to be the nation's top consumer financial watchdog and boldly declared he didn't have to say a word.
"I believe it would be my statutory right to just sit here and twiddle my thumbs while you all ask questions," Mulvaney, acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, told the House Financial Services Committee.
The 2010 Dodd-Frank law that created the bureau in the wake of the financial crisis only requires the bureau director to appear before Congress, but doesn't specifically mandate answering questions, said Mulvaney, a Republican and outspoken critic of the agency.
Still, he went on to answer questions, many of them confrontational ones by Democrats who told him they believed he had been unlawfully appointed to the job last fall by President Trump. But Mulvaney's assertion that he didn't have to — which Democrats contested — was part of a strategy since taking the job of trying to highlight his view that the independent bureau is a rogue agency that should be reined in by Congress.
"It's not accountable to you. It's not accountable to the public. It's not accountable to anybody but itself," Mulvaney said.
Republicans, most of whom have opposed the bureau since it was created by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act in the wake of the financial crisis, praised Mulvaney for his actions since taking the job to reduce the bureau's activities.
He has scaled back enforcement efforts. He changed the bureau's mission statement to make the top goal "identifying and addressing outdated, unnecessary or unduly burdensome regulations." And in his prepared testimony for the hearing, Mulvaney said the agency's new priority is "to recognize free markets and consumer choice" and take "a humble approach to enforcing the law,"
"Mr. Mulvaney, you are thankfully both a terrible bureaucrat and a great leader," said Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-Mo.). "What a welcome change."
But Democrats hammered Mulvaney for ditching the aggressive approach to consumer protection of his predecessor, Democrat Richard Cordray.
"Why should we think that you're not there to destroy the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau?" Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) asked Mulvaney, who in the past has called the bureau a "joke."
"I have not burned the place down, despite what you might have heard I was going to do," Mulvaney said. He noted that the bureau still has a workforce of 1,627 employees, just 10 fewer than when he took the job.
Mulvaney acknowledged that although the bureau had averaged opening one new enforcement action a week under Cordray, he had launched none since taking over.
That triggered astonishment from Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.).
"Are you telling me that every single financial institution in America has suddenly snapped into full compliance with every single consumer financial law since you took over last November?" she said. "I'm deeply disappointed that we have essentially taken the cop off the beat in terms of initiating new actions to help the consumer."
Mulvaney responded that "we are still going after bad actors," noting the bureau still had 100 ongoing probes.
But he reiterated formal recommendations he made last week for Congress to reduce the bureau's authority, which includes funding outside the regular congressional appropriation process and job protection for its director, who can only be fired by the president for cause, rather than at will.
"I do not believe I can walk down the street and get $700 million without answering to anybody. That's just wrong," Mulvaney said of the bureau's funding, which comes from the Federal Reserve with statutory limits.
The committee's chairman, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), who has been the leading opponent of the bureau, said "it is sheer irony and great comic relief to see the wailing and gnashing of teeth of many of my Democratic colleagues" about their inability to hold Mulvaney accountable.
Hensarling validated Mulvaney's view that Dodd-Frank doesn't require him to answer lawmakers' questions, adding that "you could play Candy Crush for the next few hours and there would be nothing we could do about it."
Then Hensarling had Mulvaney say that there was nothing in the law to prevent him from spending $20 million a year to put the bureau's name on a Texas football stadium or "ensure that every man, woman and child in American has a CFPB, T-shirt, ball cap and [can] coozy."
Mulvaney noted that the bureau had spent $40 million in its history on advertising. Consumer advocates said that outreach was necessary to let Americans know it existed.
Democrats and consumer advocates said the bureau's structure was designed to keep it free of political influence so consumer protection efforts wouldn't be weakened by financial industry lobbying or starved of funding by congressional opponents.
Mulvaney's narrow view of the law extends to the agency's name. Dodd-Frank refers to it as the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection. But it has been known as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau since its start.
"The organization is the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection," Mulvaney said Wednesday in response to a lawmaker's question about the name. "The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau does not exist."
It's unclear if Mulvaney plans to formally change the name or replace the simple, modern CFPB logo, which is still displayed at the top of the website.
Democrats noted that Mulvaney still also serves as the White House budget director, which they said gave President Trump great sway over him as director of the independent consumer bureau.
"It shouldn't come as a surprise that many on our side of the aisle, those who have the highest hopes for consumer protection, would see you as sort of the fox in the henhouse," said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.).
He and other Democrats sharply questioned him even though Waters said their participation in the hearing "is not in any way an acknowledgment of Mr. Mulvaney's legitimacy at the consumer bureau."
Mulvaney's appointment is being challenged in court by Leandra English, the bureau deputy director who contends she is the rightful acting director. Cordray, who resigned as director in November, appointed her as his temporary replacement. But Trump quickly installed Mulvaney in the job.
A federal judge denied English's request for a temporary restraining order and later a preliminary injunction to remove Mulvaney as acting director and install her instead. She is appealing the injunction denial to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. A three-judge panel will hear oral arguments in the case Thursday.
11:55 a.m.: This article was updated with comments by Mulvaney about the bureau's name.
10:30 a.m.: This article was updated with testimony and comments from the hearing.