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Why Are Republicans Blocking Richard Cordray at the CFPB?

Amy Traub

This morning the Senate Banking Committee will hold a hearing on the nomination of Richard Corday  to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. On the merits, Cordray should breeze through.  The politics, however, are destined to be thornier.

Nobody questions that Richard Cordray, the former Ohio Attorney General who has led the CFPB since January 2012, is highly competent and supremely qualified to continue in his position. Nor is the impact of the agency itself in doubt: in 2012 alone, 6 million U.S. consumers received refunds from financial services companies as a result of CFPB enforcement actions, according Americans for Financial Reform, and the agency has handled more than 130,000 consumer complaints since it opened its doors less than two years ago. Whether it’s protecting consumers from the type of reckless and deceptive mortgage lending that sparked the economic downturn or beginning to oversee the massive credit reporting companies that shape the financial lives of American consumers, the CFPB has proven itself to be a critical consumer watchdog.

Yet last month 43 Republican Senators sent President Obama a letter asserting that they would refuse to permit a vote to consider any nominee to lead the CFPB unless the agency was restructured in ways that would significantly weaken it. This despite the fact that the agency’s creation and structure was determined by legislation passed by both chambers of Congress and signed into law by the president nearly three years ago.

The Senators’ concerns regarding the CFPB’s structure are unfounded. As Demos President Miles Rapoport noted in a recent letter to the Senate Banking Committee:

Under current law, the Bureau is fully accountable to the American people, to Congress, the judiciary, and the President. It has sufficient freedom of action to operate successfully, but it is also already more constrained – by oversight from other regulators and by special review by small business representatives – than any other financial agency.

So why the push to weaken the agency by blocking Cordray? It’s certainly not because of anti-agency outcry by voters: polls show strong and broad public support for the CFPB and its mission. In addition, the vast majority of small business owners support the CFPB and many leaders of financial firms overseen by the agency appreciate the CFPB’s transparent procedures and the chance to operate in a marketplace with clear and predictable rules.

But not every corporation is resigned to the inevitability of a strong consumer watchdog overseeing financial matters – even if it is the result of popularly supported and democratically enacted legislation. As a result, the standoff over the CFPB’s structure and leadership may be another illustration of how the dominance of American politics by big business undermines the nation’s economic mobility, along the same lines Demos’ David Callahan and Mijin Cha outlined in their recent “Stacked Deck” report. After all, upward mobility for ordinary Americans is significantly destabilized if we are buried by high-interest student debt, besieged by predatory loans, cheated out of our homes with deceptive mortgages, or losing our retirement nest eggs to high fees. Yet sectors of the financial services industry can turn a handsome profit from these unfair and misleading practices. As the non-partisan Public Campaign points out, the senators pledging to block the CFPB have received $143 million in financial industry campaign contributions.

That may be just what it takes to stack the deck against the rest of us.