Obama nominee a mystery man on Hill

Lawmakers in both parties are lining up questions for Timothy Massad, who has been tapped by the president to oversee a key financial regulator.

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Massad has been a fixture of Washington for years, but members say they need to know more about the man who President Obama wants to take over the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), a technical but critical financial watchdog.

As the president’s pick to head the CFTC, Massad would be handed a massively expanded portfolio. The small agency – complete with a small budget – is tasked with overseeing a complex derivatives marketplace that runs in the hundreds of trillions of dollars.

He has earned plaudits for his work at the Treasury Department, where he steered the reviled Troubled Asset Relief Program towards a government profit. Massad's backers point to his earlier work as a corporate finance attorney as proof he has the experience to police derivatives.

But lawmakers say Massad needs to prove he’s the man for to replace the outgoing Gary Gensler, a former Goldman Sachs executive who has emerged as one of the administration’s fiercest regulators.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee that will vet Massad, said Friday that the CFTC is at a critical juncture finalizing rules for the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, and refrained from endorsing Massad until her panel has had the chance to vet him, along with future CFTC nominees.

“I look forward to working with the White House and the [CFTC] as the Senate proceeds with the confirmation process and we fully vet these nominees,” she said.

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) struck a similar tone, but others on the panel are less sanguine.

“I don’t think he has any experience, at all, with the key issues with regards to the CFTC,” said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), a senior member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “I’m looking forward to the hearing and meeting him.”

The overarching message from lawmakers regarding Massad is that while he has been closely involved with the federal government for years, they just don’t know much about him.

Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas), who sits on the House Agriculture and Financial Services Committee, said Friday he needed to learn more before weighing in on the pick.

“I really don’t know much about him,” he said.

Even the president acknowledged that Massad has been primarily a behind-the-scenes operator. On Tuesday, the president praised Massad’s work at the Treasury Department overseeing the Troubled Asset Relief Program, while at the same time noting how little attention he has garnered in the role.

“Tim is a guy who doesn’t seek the spotlight, but he consistently delivers,” Obama said. “He gets a high return for American taxpayers without a lot of fanfare.”

That lack of fanfare is leaving lots of people waiting to see exactly what Massad would bring to the table as a CFTC leader.

Some of Gensler’s biggest advocates are also holding back on Massad, waiting for firm commitments that he will take the fight to Wall Street in his new role.

“Very little is known about CFTC Chairman Nominee Mr. Massad,” said Dennis Kelleher, head of the financial reform advocacy group Better Markets. “It is the Senate’s duty in the confirmation process to determine whether Mr. Massad has the qualifications and guts for the job.”

However, Massad already is aligning some significant support from Democrats, who contend that he’s just the man for the job. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) lauded Massad as an “excellent selection.”

And Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.), the top Democrat on the House Agriculture subcommittee overseeing the CFTC, was confident Massad had the know-how to run the agency.

“Anybody that could go in and … handle the Troubled Asset Relief Program? He can handle this,” he said.

Massad came to Washington first as a legal adviser for the Congressional Oversight Program charged with monitoring the bailouts. Before that, he was a partner with the law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore, specializing in international transactions and corporate finance.

His nomination takes on an even more important role given that the CFTC may be grappling with a large number of vacancies soon. Republican Commissioner Jillian Sommers left the agency earlier this year and her seat remains open.

Democratic Commissioner Bart Chilton also recently announced his plans to step down soon, meaning Massad, if confirmed, will have an outsized role to play until the agency is fully restocked.