On June 18, the House Financial Services Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, chaired by Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., had another bout with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the agency created by the Dodd-Frank Act to take over consumer protection regulations from the so-called prudential banking regulators. The occasion was to examine the CFPB's budget, and the witness was Stephen Agostini, the Bureau's Chief Financial Officer (CFO).
The most authoritative witness would have been the Director of the CFPB, former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray, but the chairman of the full House Financial Services Committee, Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, has served notice that he will not invite Cordray to testify before his committee because he believes Cordray was unlawfully given a recess appointment to the job at a time when the Senate was not in fact in recess.
This Republican view has been bolstered by a federal court ruling that a National Labor Relations Board appointment made on the same day was unlawful, and Republicans expect Cordray's appointment eventually to be invalidated if he is not confirmed by the Senate.
Senate Democrats have gotten Cordray's appointment through the Senate Banking Committee, but Republicans are holding up a floor vote as a means of expressing their distaste for the fact that the agency is funded by the Federal Reserve and not subject to congressional oversight. (The Supreme Court announced today that it would hear the Cordray case.)
Also, bankers hate the CFPB because it is a nuisance, and they complain that its existence aggravates the uncertainty that marks the banking business.
As the hearing proceeded for nearly three hours with a modest number of members present, the Democrats protested the refusal of the majority to invite Cordray, and they used all their time to talk about the CFPB's accomplishments and the importance of independent funding, repeatedly asking the witness to repeat and elaborate on the accomplishments of the Bureau, which he had already set out in his statement.
There was one conciliatory moment when Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., said matter of factly that the two sides simply disagree about the merits of the CFPB. He then followed the same pattern of softball questioning that his colleagues had established.
In his opening statement, Chairman McHenry noted that the theory behind the creation of the CFPB was that an agency was need to regulate financial products in the same way that the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) regulates other consumer products, but he pointed out that the CPSC has three commissioners and is subject to the congressional appropriations process, whereas the CFPB has a single director and is provided with independent funding through the Fed.
McHenry went on to accuse the Bureau of wasteful spending and failing to comply with employee survey practices that are followed by 98 percent of federal agencies and show dissatisfaction on the part of a majority of CFPB staff with the training they receive and the supervision of staff who fail to improve their performance when it falls below standard.
Maxine Waters, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the full committee, stated that she has written to Chairman Hensarling to request that he reconsider his refusal to invite Cordray.
Agostini's testimony presented the budget numbers and hiring plans for the CFPB, which can spend up to a cap of about $600 million per year and is staffing up to a projected total of 1200 employees. The second part of his statement cleverly listed numbers of complaints handled, consumers assisted and refunds obtained on behalf of consumers (only $425 million).
The Republican staff clearly did considerable homework in preparation for the hearing, and in a few cases they appeared to have more up-to-date numbers than Agostini did. Whenever members asked Agostini for additional information, Agostini dutifully promised to provide it, and at one point, he acknowledged that there might be some merit in the suggestion by Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Penn., that the Bureau might be able to save on travel costs by making greater use of video conferencing.
When in a couple instances Agostini tried to be clever, he ended up looking clumsy. For example, when asked about the CFPB's expenditures for data collection, he stated that the Bureau is building its own network, in order to avoid having to rely on the Treasury's network. Then he asserted that the Bureau shares facilities with other agencies, in order to avoid duplication.
When Scott Garrett, R-N.J., tried to get Agostini to admit that the Bureau is not accountable to any agency that could correct shortcomings in its performance, Garrett had to go back and forth with the witness five times before Agostini finally agreed that if an auditor recommends changes in the Bureau's practices, it does not have to comply.
Several Republicans noted the presence behind Agostini of eight employees of the Bureau and that he never consulted any of them whenever he told members he would have to supply data later.
Republicans are clearly rankled by some of what they've learned about the CFPB, such as the fact that it has about 58 employees who make more than a cabinet secretary (about $193,400), which is much more than congressmen make, and they could have mentioned generals with more than 30 years of service.
To add to the aggravation, it has a bonus pool of $750,000, plans to spend $75,000 per employee upgrading office space and has about 70 paid summer interns, who make more than congressional interns make. In addition, 95 percent of the employees contributed to Obama's presidential campaign, and the employees have voted to join the Treasury Employees Union.
However, these facts merely serve to highlight that the CFPB was created by Dodd-Frank to provide salaries comparable with those of the Fed and that both the "too big to fail" banking sector and the bloated, overpaid regulatory enterprise that supports it have continued to grow under Dodd-Frank.
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