WASHINGTON — In a defiant display of executive power, President Barack Obama is bucking GOP opposition and naming Richard Cordray as the nation's chief consumer watchdog.
Outraged Republican leaders in Congress, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, insisted that courts would determine that the appointment is illegal.
With a director in place, the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau can start overseeing the mortgage companies, payday lenders, debt collectors and other financial companies often blamed for practices that helped tank the economy.
The president highlighted just that point during his announcement this afternoon in Cordray’s home state of Ohio, where Cordray once was attorney general. Cordray was at his side as he announced the appointment.
It seems certain to raise the level of confrontational politics for a president seeking re-election by championing the middle class. Acting right after Tuesday's GOP presidential caucuses in Iowa, Obama is seeking to grab attention with his most brazen leap-frog over Congress and show that criticism won't slow him.
Republicans have stalled Cordray's nomination because they think the consumer agency is too powerful and unaccountable.
McConnell, of Kentucky, the Senate's top Republican, accused Obama of an unprecedented power grab that "arrogantly circumvented the American people."
Speaker Boehner, of Ohio, said: "It's clear the president would rather trample our system of separation of powers than work with Republicans to move the country forward. This action goes beyond the president's authority, and I expect the courts will find the appointment to be illegitimate."
Other Republicans also voiced their anger.
Sen. John Cornyn, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, said: “Today’s appointment of another unaccountable czar is an arrogant abuse of presidential power. Then-Senator Obama has previously called such a recess appointee ‘damaged goods.’
“So we are left to wonder why the president is unwilling to work with Congress to adopt common-sense improvements in accountability and transparency that would protect small businesses from more job-killing regulations and red tape,” the Texas Republican said.
Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, said, “Both the Clinton and Obama administrations have acknowledged that recess appointments are not allowed if Congress has met in the last three days. The House and Senate both met yesterday. This questionable appointment does not give Richard Cordray any legitimate legal authority to run a federal agency. I fully expect the courts to overturn this unprecedented power grab."
Obama’s move essentially declares the Senate's short off-and-on legislative sessions a sham intended to block his appointments.
Yet his own party started the practice.
The White House braced for fallout but said Obama was left with little choice to get the consumer agency fully running after months of stalemate.
Cordray, who will take over the job this week, stands to serve for at least the next two years, covering the length of the Senate's session.
Every day that Cordray waited for confirmation, millions of people remained unprotected from dishonest financial practices, Obama said.
"That's inexcusable," the president said. "And I refuse to take 'No' for an answer. I've said before that I will continue to look for every opportunity to work with Congress to move this country forward. But when Congress refuses to act and, as a result, hurts our economy and puts people at risk, I have an obligation as president to do what I can without them."
More than a standoff over one significant appointment, the fight speaks to the heart of a presidential campaign under way. Presiding over a troubled but improving economy, Obama must persuade a weary middle class that he is their advocate, while fending off criticism from Republican challengers and lawmakers.
Obama has constitutional power to make appointments during a congressional recess.
Expressly to keep that from happening, Republicans in the Senate have had the Senate running in "pro forma" sessions, meaning open for business in name only with no actual business planned. Democrats started the practice when George W. Bush was president to halt him from making recess appointments.
The Senate held such a session on Tuesday and planned another one on Friday. Republicans contend Obama cannot make a recess appointment during a break of less than three days, based on years of precedent.
The Obama White House contends such an approach is a gimmick. For all practical purposes, the Senate is in recess and Obama is free to make the appointment on his own, administration officials told The Associated Press.
McConnell said Obama's move "lands this appointee in uncertain legal territory, threatens the confirmation process and fundamentally endangers the Congress's role in providing a check on the excesses of the executive branch.
The president also is expected to announce other recess appointments, possibly including nominees to the National Labor Relations Board. The agency, which oversees union elections, has been a target of Republicans who claim it has leaned too far in favor of organized labor. The board usually has five members but has operated for months with three. As of this week, it is down to two members.
Republicans have had little opposition if any to the qualifications of Cordray. Their objection is with the consumer agency itself.
Obama and his team say lawmakers should try to revise the Wall Street oversight law if they don't like it, not keep the agency from performing its job.
Obama traveled to the most Democratic congressional district in Ohio, a Cleveland suburb, a day after Mitt Romney won Iowa's Republican presidential caucuses by just eight votes. Obama's trip signals the White House's intent to keep the president in the public eye even as the political world focuses on the GOP's selection process.