New consumer bureau chief still under fire from GOP

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 24, 2012 

WASHINGTON — In his first congressional testimony as the official director of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Richard Cordray faced tough questions on Tuesday from Republican lawmakers still seething over his controversial recess appointment.

While the tone of Tuesday's hearing before a House Oversight subcommittee never matched the heated confrontations faced by former bureau special adviser Elizabeth Warren, the pointed questions and stinging rhetoric made clear that the old resentments remained among GOP lawmakers who see the agency as a broad overreach of government power.

Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., who chairs the Subcommittee on TARP, Financial Services and Bailouts of Public and Private Programs, said Cordray's recess appointment by President Barack Obama was "constitutionally questionable" and jeopardized "the sanctity of the bureau's operations."

"If having a regulator with unprecedented and ill-defined power was not enough, the administration decided to double down by bringing into question the validity of its director," McHenry said, calling Cordray an "unelected and unaccountable bureaucrat."

In response to McHenry's request for a one-year outline of the bureau's regulatory agenda, Cordray said the bureau's agenda is already set by Congress and will reflect its responsibility to weed out unfair, predatory and abusive practices in the consumer credit market. He was not specific.

Tuesday's hearing was the 12th called by Republicans to address the new agency in the past 11 months. Republicans vowed to block the bureau's launch unless structural changes were made to its design and operation. Those efforts died when Obama appointed Cordray as bureau director earlier this month while lawmakers were out of town, although technically Congress was still in session, not in a formal recess. A court challenge by conservatives to the appointment is widely expected.

The bureau will enforce roughly 20 federal consumer finance laws that were previously handled by seven agencies. The splintered enforcement left regulators slow to respond as dangerous loan products hit the marketplace, helping ignite the nation's housing collapse in 2008.

When Rep. Frank Guinta, R-N.H., asked Cordray if he was concerned that legal questions about his appointment might create uncertainty for banks under the bureau's supervision, Cordray seemed resolute.

"I'm on the job," he said. "All I can do is try to carry out the laws that have been put on my back."

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said Obama would have been a "pansy" if he had not appointed Cordray, whose confirmation was being blocked by Senate Republicans.

At a press briefing before the hearing, Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., said Senate Republicans were abusing the confirmation process to sabotage Obama's ability to govern.

With a bureau budget of nearly $500 million and 757 employees that will eventually grow to between 1,200 to 1,500, Cordray said the bureau has received thousands of complaints about credit cards and mortgage lenders.

The bureau expects to propose new guidelines this summer that would simplify and clarify mortgage disclosure forms, he said.

Cordray recently held a field hearing in Birmingham, Ala., to get testimony on the payday loan industry. While he doesn't want to ban payday loans, Cordray said some payday lenders use illegal collection practices and make unauthorized withdrawals from borrowers' bank accounts.

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