Warren is different. In 2007, she wrote a now-famous article in the Democracy Journal arguing that we needed a financial product safety commission. Her idea was that the agency would rein in the kind of lending that ultimately brought down the economy. It would also help consumers negotiate the thicket of consumer credit contracts, so that they wouldn’t be victimized by predatory lenders. Middle class consumers could figure out which credit card was the best for them, and financial institutions wouldn’t be able to take advantage of consumer ignorance.
When Warren got the agency through Congress—now called the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—she made sure that it would fulfill its mission by standing it up. She spent almost a year introducing the Bureau to industry groups and skeptical members of the public. And she put together a top-notch staff that could fulfill her dream to level the playing field for consumers.
At the end of her service in government, the Inspectors General of the Treasury and Federal Reserve – whose job it is to find mistakes and problems in government – wrote a report praising Warren’s work at the CFPB. Building a new agency is difficult, especially when you and the agency are under constant attack. But she succeeded in navigating the consumer agency through its vulnerable early period and giving it momentum to get the job done.
Warren’s advocacy for consumers also made a lot of enemies – so many that the President passed her over for permanent leadership of the Bureau. But the president nominated her ally for director -- former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray, whom she had earlier picked to lead the Bureau’s enforcement efforts. Cordray looks like he will be a forceful voice for consumers.
Congress almost never creates new agencies, and it is even rarer for it to do so to protect consumers. Doing so in the face of concerted opposition from an exceedingly powerful lobby is unheard of. Yet not only did Congress do all that, early indications are that the Bureau will make relationships between consumers and financial institutions—relationships that every consumer in the country has--fairer.
Warren’s impact over the past few years would be extraordinary even for a senator—except that Warren is not a senator, at least not yet.
That’s why I hope Warren becomes a senator: so she won’t be a professor anymore. Because the next time she does something that makes the country a better place, I don’t want to feel bad that another law professor did something the rest of us haven’t.
After all, senators are supposed to make the country a better place. So we don’t have to feel envy when they do. I just wish more did.
Sovern is a professor of law at St. John’s University School of Law and a coordinator of the Consumer Law and Policy Blog.