WASHINGTON — The Senate Banking Committee, more often a zone of mind-numbing debates on arcane financial regulations, featured a heavyweight bout Thursday over President Trump’s regulation-slashing agenda.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic Massachusetts firebrand and one of the chief architects of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, squared off against Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director who also serves as acting director of Warren’s beloved agency. Mulvaney thinks the CFPB has too much power and is actively working to weaken the organization from within.
“You’re hurting real people to score cheap political points,” Warren told Mulvaney in a scorching speech at Thursday’s committee hearing.
“I’m not seeking to undermine the mission of the bureau,” Mulvaney fired back at one point.
The testy debate came after months of pointed letters between Mulvaney and Warren, who disagree on nearly everything regarding the agency.
Originally proposed in 2007 by then-Harvard Law professor Warren, the CFPB came to fruition in 2010 as part of the postfinancial crisis Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law. Now, nearly a decade after that financial collapse, the battle over the agency’s fate illuminates the ideological divides in Congress between those who want to protect consumers, and those, like Trump, who are intent in reducing regulations for American businesses.
Mulvaney is a former US representative from South Carolina whose last congressional campaign received more than $30,000 in donations from payday lending companies, to name just one category of companies he is now charged with regulating. In 2015 he was cosponsor of a House bill to kill the CFPB.
Mulvaney testified Thursday that the agency’s powers are too broad and likened the role of CFPB director to that of a “dictator.” He acknowledged that he has not initiated a single enforcement action since he took over the agency in the fall.
Warren believes sweeping powers are necessary for the agency to hold corporate lenders accountable and protect consumers from abusive practices. The Bay State senator is enraged over Mulvaney’s methodical weakening of the bureau.
“You’ve taken obvious joy in talking about how the agency will help banks a lot more than it will help consumers — and how upset this must make me,’’ Warren told Mulvaney during the hearing.
“But here’s what you don’t get, Mr. Mulvaney: this isn’t about me.’’
In a Boston Globe interview following the hearing, she said, “The agency is there to level the playing field, to make sure that when people are borrowing money for their home, or their college — they’re not getting cheated.”
“It’s up to the agency to make sure lenders don’t build their business models around cheating people,” Warren said. “I believe in the people who came to do this work. Mick Mulvaney is doing his best to try to hold them back.”
In an administration where numerous Trump appointees have emerged as Democratic punching bags, Mulvaney — with his biting one-liners, relentless budget-cutting, and mastery of bureaucratic detail — drives liberals crazy. He claims to be following the letter of the law, even as he uses his broad discretion to de-fang the agency.
“I’m trying to be a good bureaucrat,’’ he told the Senate panel Thursday. “I never thought I’d say that.’’
He said he does not believe he legally has to answer their questions because of the broad authority given to him in the 2010 law. The law requires Mulvaney to periodically appear before Congress, but Mulvaney argued it does not require him to answer questions. (He answered questions, anyway.)
The law also exempts the agency’s budget from congressional review, which Warren says is necessary to maintain independence. Mulvaney and Senate Banking Committee Republicans disagreed. Repeatedly, they sought to cast CFPB as a wayward and unnecessary agency whose independence needed to be constrained.
“I don’t know if any director of any bureaucracy has ever come to you and said ‘Please take my power away,’ but that’s what I’m doing,” Mulvaney said.
Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, said Mulvaney’s decision to end the investigation into a breach by data giant Equifax is “malpractice” and will “put 145 million Americans at risk.” Montana Senator Jon Tester pressed Mulvaney on possible data breaches in the bureau.
Republicans were similarly relentless, but used Mulvaney’s presence before the committee to make the small government argument that CFPB should not exist at all, or should be run by a bigger, bipartisan commission similar to other agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission.
“How does it feel to lead an unconstitutional agency?” asked Republican Senator Tom Cotton during his series of questions. Senator Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama, said Mulvaney brings “a ray of sunshine to a black hole of bureaucracy.”
Republicans, and probusiness conservatives in general, have long advocated for the agency to be run by a board of directors rather than a single individual, and some praised Mulvaney’s attempts to limit the agency’s scope as an act of selflessness.
In one speech, Louisiana Republican Senator John N. Kennedy mentioned Warren by name.
“I think you’re doing a great job, I don’t care what Senator Warren says,” he said.
During the hearing, a protestor from the nonprofit watchdog group Public Citizen who was dressed as the “Monopoly Man,” complete with a monocle and bushy moustache, made faces behind Mulvaney.
Another observer was Harry Booras, the father from Hull, Mass. who Warren mentioned by name from the dias. Booras’ son, Ari was one of hundreds of active-duty servicemembers who used auto lending services called Military Installment Loans and Educational Services before the CFPB judged it to be intentionally misleading consumers.
Under Richard Cordray, the former agency chief who resigned last year and now is running for governor in Ohio, the agency ordered lenders to pay back $6.5 million in restitution to the servicemembers, which stemmed from Booras’ advocacy.
“No one else paid attention to me,’’ Booras said, “and the CFPB did and they came through.’’