Freshman senator with senior pluck takes on the financial industry
WASHINGTON — Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the newest member of the Senate Banking Committee, waited patiently for her first chance to question top financial regulators at a recent hearing on Capitol Hill.
When her turn finally came after 90 minutes, Warren quickly showed she wouldn’t be following the custom that a freshman senator be seen and not heard.
After some pleasantries, the longtime consumer advocate and Wall Street critic lit into the heads of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and officials from four other agencies for their practice of allowing big banks to settle government allegations of wrongdoing out of court.
“I’m really concerned that too-big-to-fail has become too big for trial,” said Warren, 63, who chastised regulators for treating financial executives better than average Americans.
Her questions in February, and at subsequent hearings, have helped quickly establish the Massachusetts Democrat as a key player on issues affecting the financial industry despite her rock-bottom seniority: 97th out of 100 senators. She has drawn kudos from colleagues — even some Republicans — for her deep knowledge of the issues and her ability to fire succinct questions at witnesses.
The attention Warren is drawing — video clips of her first Banking Committee hearing went viral on YouTube — could catapult her even further. Some liberals have begun touting her as a potential 2016 presidential candidate.
“She has maximized the influence and attention that a freshman senator can get,” said Jaret Seiberg, a senior policy analyst with financial services firm Guggenheim Partners. “Now, when we look at issues of too-big-to-fail and of consumer protection, people want to know what Elizabeth Warren has to say.”
The fast start by Warren, one of the few politicians to embrace the Occupy Wall Street movement, has confirmed the fears of some in the financial industry that she wouldn’t hesitate to criticize them from her new, higher-profile position.
Warren’s sharp rhetoric is “certainly harmful to our industry,” said Ballard Cassady, president of the Kentucky Bankers Assn.
Her comments make it sound as if all bankers were responsible for the financial crisis, he said, adding that tougher regulation makes it more difficult for small bankers to serve their communities.
Given the industry’s experience with Warren, her push for tighter regulation has not been surprising, said James Ballentine, top lobbyist for the trade group American Bankers Assn. But her blunt and forceful questioning has opened some eyes, he said.
“Perhaps folks aren’t used to her style and have been a little shocked by that,” Ballentine said.
Warren’s tough interrogation of regulators has delighted liberals, who helped her defeat Republican incumbent Scott Brown last fall in the nation’s most expensive Senate race.
“She has hit the ground running and already made a name for herself as someone who will ask not only the hard questions but the really pertinent questions,” Liz Coyle, deputy director of Georgia Watch, a consumer advocacy group, said after attending a Warren speech at a Washington conference in March.
At subsequent Senate hearings, Warren stayed on the offensive with her plain-spoken, direct questions.
She grilled other regulators and Obama administration officials, even going head to head with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke over whether large banks are able to borrow money at a reduced rate because the markets still believe the government would not let them fail.
“Ordinary folks pay for homeowners’ insurance. Ordinary folks pay for car insurance,” she lectured Bernanke. “And these big financial institutions are getting cheaper borrowing … simply because people believe that the government would step in and bail them out.”
Some critics in the financial industry have been quick to disparage privately what they consider to be grandstanding comments, but they haven’t been so eager to voice their views publicly about a sitting senator with influence on their issues.
Outside the industry, conservative activists have criticized Warren for her strong liberal views about Wall Street and other topics, such as her support of tougher gun controls and opposition to Social Security benefit cuts.
Warren, though, isn’t letting that deter her from developing a more well-rounded resume.
For instance, she joined in signing a letter with some Republicans that urged regulators to act more quickly in writing new rules aimed at preventing future bailouts, and she co-sponsored a bipartisan bill on reforming taxpayer-owned housing finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
“You can tell Sen. Warren spends a lot of time preparing for meetings and hearings, which is something I appreciate,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), a banking committee colleague.
Warren’s positions and her eagerness to speak out about them are no surprise to people in the financial industry. They’ve been tangling with her since she headed the congressional oversight panel for the $700-billion bailout fund and then helped launch the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
“I don’t see Elizabeth Warren not raising an issue that she believes needs to be raised,” said Richard Hunt, president of the Consumer Bankers Assn. “I think she’ll be in the center of all banking legislation.”
There were expectations she might ease her way into the spotlight, following the playbook of Hillary Rodham Clinton, another big-name politician who reached the Senate in her first run for public office.
Like Warren — an Oklahoma native who began teaching at Harvard Law School in 1995 — Chicago-native Clinton was branded a carpetbagger when she ran for a Senate seat from New York in 2000. So Clinton focused narrowly on state issues and developing relationships with colleagues during her first months in office.
Warren also has stayed centered on state issues, such as the fishing industry and the Boston Marathon bombing. She has declined most interview requests from the national media, including one from The Times.
Warren and her staff “are very smart to spend most of their time and attention focusing on Massachusetts while picking and choosing their spots on issues on the national level,” said Jim Manley, a former top Senate Democratic aide.
So far, those spots have largely been on financial regulation.
“It’s hard enough to get legislation enacted if you’re a senior member, but as a freshman senator it’s almost impossible,” Seiberg said. “So the way you make your mark is by helping set the agenda. And she’s done that.”
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