Consumer bureau chief wages charm offensive on Republican critics

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) Director Richard Cordray offered an outstretched hand to Republicans on Tuesday in his first appearance before Congress since his controversial recess appointment.

Appearing before the same House Oversight subcommittee where Elizabeth Warren, the architect of the bureau, got into a heated dispute with a Republican lawmaker, the soft-spoken Cordray tried to tamp down the simmering partisan conflict over his agency.

“The people who work at the consumer bureau are always happy to discuss our work,” he told members. “I look forward to working closely with you.”

The charm offensive was a marked change from the tack taken by Warren, the liberal champion of the bureau who often butted heads with conservative lawmakers. 

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Known for her colorful criticism of bad actors in the financial sector, Warren was ultimately passed over to head the agency when President Obama opted for Cordray, a less controversial nominee. Warren left the bureau in the fall to run for the Senate in Massachusetts.

Even at Tuesday’s hearing, months after her departure, Warren found herself on the receiving end of GOP jabs. Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), who chaired both Tuesday’s hearing and the infamous May spat, complained that Warren gave answers that were “fuzzy at best” and that “exasperated” the panel. 

“I hope Mr. Cordray will be willing to engage in … conversation today,” McHenry said in his opening statement.

By the close of the hearing, Cordray seemed to have won McHenry over.

“There have been a lot of concerns here expressed today — you’ve given a great deal of explanation,” McHenry told him after more than two hours of questioning. “We appreciate that, and we certainly appreciate the exchange of ideas.” 

Cordray and McHenry even talked for a few minutes after the hearing officially concluded — a significant departure from Warren’s prompt exit following May’s blowup. 

Cordray’s attempt at making nice did not go unnoticed by Republican lawmakers. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who grilled Warren during her appearance and became visibly frustrated by her answers, wanted to note for the record how refreshing he found Cordray’s appearance.

“Let the record reflect that Mr. Cordray answered the question,” he said following an exchange with the director.

Cordray assured skeptical Republicans that the CFPB isn’t looking to cap interest rates on consumer financial products, and stressed he would not be taking marching orders from the White House. He added that he plans to consult small businesses and banks when drafting regulations. 

But Cordray was unflinching in his support of Obama’s decision to recess-appoint him as director.

Obama’s decision allowed him to skirt GOP opposition, but has prompted legal threats from critics who contend Cordray is not a legitimate director. They argue that the president could not recess-appoint Cordray because the Senate was holding brief pro forma sessions. The White House, backed by the Office of Legal Counsel, contends those sessions are a gimmick that the president can ignore. 

Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) asked Cordray if he has a “Plan B” in place if a court deems his appointment invalid, and said he should consider recusing himself from some regulatory matters until the courts decide whether his recess appointment can stand. 

Cordray admitted the situation poses a “bit of a dilemma” and said he would think about contingencies, but gave no sign that he would let up due to the controversy.

“It would be a dereliction of duty … to say we’re not going to go forward,” he said. “That’s not tenable.”

Though Cordray largely sought to avoid confrontation with GOP lawmakers, Democrats were more than eager to take up the slack. They said it was the GOP that flouted the Constitution by blocking Cordray’s nomination over concerns with the CFPB, and the law that created it.

“My good friends on the other side opposed Dodd-Frank, lost, and became sore losers,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member of the panel, accused Republicans of making Cordray out to be a “boogeyman” and said they are “bent on doing everything they can to block your efforts.”