Politics

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Brings Banking Panel to Boiling Point

Nomination of Kathy Kraninger strains previously buddy-buddy relationship

Senate Banking Chairman Michael D. Crapo, R-Idaho, left, and ranking member Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, normally have a smooth working relationship that could be strained by debate over the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Kathy Kraninger’s confirmation hearing was as politically contentious as it’s gotten in the last year and a half on what has otherwise been a very senatorial Senate Banking Committee.

The partisan fight even appeared to consume the always amiable relations between Chairman Michael D. Crapo of Idaho and ranking member Sherrod Brown of Ohio, both of whom expressed regrets at the dust-up over Kraninger’s nomination to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

“We’ve never really done this before, but I am just kind of amazed by this,” Brown said as the usual opening statements from the pair turned into an unprecedented back-and-forth over the CFPB’s history and Democrats’ insistence that documents on Kraninger’s part in administration decisions be released.

Kraninger is President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the bureau, the brainchild of Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and the focus of politically infused lawsuits and legislative battles between the parties for the better part of this decade. It is currently headed by acting director Mick Mulvaney, who is also director of the Office of Management and Budget and a bit of a political lightning rod himself.

“It’s unfortunate to me that the committee’s starting to get into these kinds of battles too,” Crapo said. “I’m discouraged by that. And I hope that this does not change the tenor of cooperation that we have on many other issues.”

Brown fumed over Crapo’s comparison of the Banking Committee’s speed of action in the cases of former CFPB Director Richard Cordray and Kraninger.

Crapo rejected Democrats’ demands that the hearing be postponed until the White House provided the asked-for documents, noting that it had been one month since Kraninger’s nomination and Cordray received his confirmation hearing a little more than a month after his nomination.

But Republicans proceeded to hold up Cordray’s nomination for another 23 months, 729 days in all, relenting only after former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid threatened the nuclear option of removing filibusters for most presidential nominees and forcing Cordray through on a simple majority vote. The Senate went nuclear four months later, except for Supreme Court nominations, an exclusion Senate Republicans removed last year.

“Almost two full years,” Brown said. “Ms. Kraninger was nominated one month ago.” Her nomination was received June 20, and her hearing was held last Thursday, July 19.

Friends in high places

The conservative Crapo and liberal Brown disagree a lot. But typically they let partisan exaggerations slide and don’t comment on one another’s assertions. When other senators are quizzing witnesses, Crapo and Brown are often quietly gabbing and chuckling. That did not go on in the 114th Congress, when Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama chaired the committee and Brown was also ranking member.

Crapo and Brown parted on Crapo’s signature piece of legislation this year, the banking deregulation act signed into law two months ago. Still, they worked on the bill together several months before declaring an impasse and announcing that Crapo would proceed with the bill that garnered 16 Democratic votes on the floor and that Brown would go on to unsuccessfully oppose.

Meanwhile, they’ve worked together on bills to sanction Russia and to beef up the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.

At the heart of the clash is the CFPB, a powerful and independent agency created by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act. Besides the two-year GOP filibuster on Cordray, the two parties have argued in court cases over the constitutionality of the agency’s structure and powers, and Democrats have bristled over what they say are Mulvaney’s attempts to undermine the agency.

The parties sparred in court over who would lead the bureau after Cordray left with Mulvaney being the winner after a federal judge rejected the arguments that the Cordray-picked deputy director, Leandra English, should ascend to the post.

And they can’t even agree on the name. Republicans insist on its legal name, the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection.

Sticking points

Democrats are furious that Mulvaney’s reining in of their beloved agency will be followed by a five-year term for Kraninger, whom they see as Mulvaney’s protégée and, if not the architect, at least a player in some of the Trump administration actions Democrats despise most: the zero tolerance border policy, the tax code overhaul and the much-criticized response to Puerto Rico’s hurricane disasters. Their document demand is aimed at determining what advice Kraninger gave on these and other issues.

“This is a multi-faceted battle with the president being played out in the context of this committee’s nomination process,” Crapo complained.

“I understand the importance of this nomination,” he added. “I understand the long-term battle we’ve had over the CFPB and its leadership.”

Sen. Bob Corker didn’t see the hearing’s breach as surprising, since it was prompted by the CFPB.

Noting that he would “take a backseat to nobody” when it comes to criticizing certain Trump policies, the Tennessee Republican said it was wrong to “block nominees we like” over disagreements with the White House.

“What I’d like to see happen is if we could somehow depoliticize this bureau,” Corker said. “It started out in a way that was controversial under Dodd-Frank. It did. It was the thing that kept us from having a bipartisan bill in Dodd-Frank. It was this agency that kept us from having a bill that would have stood the test of time.”

At one point early in the hearing, Crapo left the room and, unusually, handed the gavel to Corker. He usually gives it to Brown.

Still, by the end of the hearing, the quiet Idahoan and the raspy-voiced Brown could be seen whispering and laughing with one another. But the committee will at some point vote on Kraninger’s nomination. 

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