Column: Consumer agency chief, his job on the line, takes Republican attacks in stride
Republican lawmakers are pushing a bill through Congress that would allow the president to sack the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau at any time for any reason.
But what are the odds President Trump would fire the head of a government agency he has issues with?
The Republican legislation, coupled with this week’s ouster of FBI Director James B. Comey, should make CFPB Director Richard Cordray very nervous.
But when I sat down with him Wednesday, he came across as cool, calm and unfazed by the increasingly ugly attacks on him and his watchdog agency.
I dove right in and asked if the FBI mess made him anxious.
Cordray fixed me with a poker player’s stare and said he had no comment. He noted, though, that he and Comey had been classmates at the University of Chicago Law School.
Cordray probably meant nothing by it. Still, I took it as a veiled way of saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Trump said last month that he plans to give the law that created the CFPB “a very major haircut.”
Although we’ve spoken in the past by phone, this was my first face-to-face conversation with the embattled bureau director. He was in Los Angeles for a CFPB hearing on lending to small businesses.
“People are entitled to, and they deserve, someone to make sure these markets are fair and transparent,” he told me. “There’s a need for this agency. And there’s more work to do.”
The Republican-controlled House Financial Services Committee voted last week along party lines, 34 to 26, to approve the so-called Financial CHOICE Act and send it to the floor for a vote by the full chamber. (That’s “CHOICE” as in “Creating Hope and Opportunity for Investors, Consumers and Entrepreneurs.”)
Among other things, the bill would allow the president to fire the director at will, rather than the current standard that the CFPB chief must be found guilty of “inefficiency, neglect of duty or malfeasance in office.”
It would strip the CFPB of its authority to monitor the day-to-day activities of financial firms and prohibit it from cracking down on practices deemed unfair, deceptive or abusive. The bill also would shut down the bureau’s database of consumer complaints, which contains more than 700,000 searchable listings.
In its most cynical ploy, the Republican legislation would change the name of the bureau to the Consumer Law Enforcement Agency, although it would be anything but.
“I can’t do a good James Brown, but I feel good,” Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), the author of the bill and chairman of the Financial Services Committee, said as he and his Republican colleagues cast their votes in favor of the Financial CHOICE Act.
I asked Cordray if he cared to respond with his own in-your-face reference to the Godfather of Soul.
He smiled and said, “I’m more inclined toward easy listening, such as the Mamas and the Papas.”
Yeah, OK. But maybe next time he encounters Hensarling, he might want to borrow a lick from Brown’s “The Payback” and whisper, “Payback is a thing you got to see, hell, never do any damn thing to me.”
The conservative congressman has been a vocal critic of the CFPB since it opened for business in 2011. The bureau’s creation was part of reforms put in place after financial firms recklessly steered the world to the brink of economic collapse.
I reminded Cordray of Hensarling’s blatantly insulting tone when the CFPB director was summoned to testify last month before the Financial Services Committee.
Hensarling mockingly said at the time that he thought Cordray, a former Ohio attorney general, would miss the hearing because he’d be in his home state running for governor, which he isn’t.
“Perhaps the rumors of your political aspirations are greatly exaggerated,” Hensarling sneered.
Cordray told me he doesn’t dwell on the congressman’s comments.
“I didn’t make much of that, to be honest,” he said. “I don’t take any of it personally.”
Conservatives insist that the CFPB is a rogue agency with too much power, thumbing its nose at oversight by coolheaded and responsible members of Congress.
The reality is that the bureau is a pebble in the shoe of Republicans and their business buddies by exposing practices that any reasonable person would acknowledge to be anti-consumer.
The CFPB fined Wells Fargo $100 million for the bank having opened unauthorized accounts on behalf of millions of customers. It fined Citigroup $28.8 million for failing to inform homeowners about ways to avoid foreclosure. It fined the credit agency Experian $3 million for deceiving people about the value of its credit scores.
In total, the CFPB estimates that it has returned about $12 billion to consumers over the last six years.
Which makes Hensarling trying to get on the good foot with his consumer-unfriendly bill all the more remarkable.
Cordray said he’s not surprised by the pushback from business interests and their Republican allies.
“We’ve had challenges over the course of our existence,” he said. “We have consistently and steadfastly emphasized doing our work on behalf of consumers.”
I also spoke with California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra at this week’s small-business event. He was in a decidedly sports-minded mood.
Becerra likened Cordray to the quarterback of the consumer-protection team. He said Republican lawmakers would be fumbling the ball if they prevailed with their Financial CHOICE Act and weakened the CFPB.
“We’re ready to pick up the ball if they fumble,” Becerra said of California’s willingness to ride point on consumer affairs.
That’s encouraging. But the best thing for consumers would be for the CFPB to keep doing what it’s done since the beginning — providing national leadership in making sure financial firms aren’t rigging the deck.
“We’re a straightforward, common-sense agency,” Cordray said.
Consumers have 12 billion reasons to believe him.
On Tuesday: Bankers break out in a cold sweat thinking about the CFPB.
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