Partisan feud over consumer bureau hot as ever

The partisan feud over the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is still simmering at the House Financial Services Committee.

Republicans pointed yet again to a multimillion dollar renovation of the agency’s new headquarters as the latest sign that the watchdog created by the Dodd-Frank financial reform law is badly in need of additional congressional oversight.

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But Democrats and CFPB Director Richard Cordray were quick to point out that renovations of government buildings are nothing new, and this project was sorely needed. Cordray invited several Republican members to see for themselves.

“Come see the building. It’s a dump,” he told Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas).

Hensarling and other GOP lawmakers said the estimated $184 million cost to overhaul the building was proof of an agency run amok. They noted that among the renovation plans are features such as waterfalls — Cordray dismissed such aesthetic additions as common to “every halfway functioning shopping mall in America.”

Additional Republicans said the agency was pulling in far too much personal information as it worked to build a national database of mortgage information, saying everything from religion to the GPS coordinates of homes would be scooped up.

“I’m not sure who’s going to win the race on collecting the most data, the NSA or your agency,” said Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas).

Cordray vowed to lawmakers that while the data collected will include some personal information not relevant to a mortgage database, it will be scrubbed before placed into the database.

“None of our employees who work with the database will have any of that information available,” he said. “That’s my commitment to you..We’re not interested in knowing what Congressman [Shelly Moore] Capito [R-W.Va.] had for dinner.”

The sparring marked just the latest round in a fight that has been ongoing since the CFPB was created. Republicans have argued that, as is, the agency is unaccountable to Congress and the public and is sorely in need of some checks. They have proposed scrapping Cordray’s position as director and replacing it with a bipartisan board, bringing its budget under the control of appropropriators, and give other financial regulators greater veto power over its efforts.

Democrats have resisted those efforts every step of the way, arguing it is nothing more than a transparent attempt to curb the agency’s effectiveness at the behest of the industry that opposes it.

That fundamental issue was the backbone of the battle over Cordray’s nomination, as Republicans blocked his nomination and President Obama used a controversial recess appointment to put him in place. He was only confirmed by the Senate after Democrats threatened to change procedural rules to allow them to confirm him with a simple majority (they later actually took that step due to other stalled nominees).

House Republicans have advanced fresh legislation to achieve the same goals, although they face very slim odds of ever being taken up by the Democrat-controlled Senate. GOP lawmakers in the House are also working on a second package of bills that would place further restrictions on the agency and how it operates.

On Wednesday, Democrats were quick to point out the CFPB’s accomplishments, including the over $4 billion the agency has recouped for wronged consumers since its creation.

“This is about check cashers, pawn shops,” said Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.). “I don’t understand why there is this consistent drumbeat against the CFPB when that is your mission.”

“It saddens me that my colleagues on the other side of the aisle have aligned themselves with Wall Street, predatory lenders and other bad actors in our financial system at the expense of protecting consumers,” added Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the panel.

The CFPB has recently been dogged by accusations from employees that there is widespread discrimination at the agency. Cordray admitted that the agency’s previous performance rating system resulted in a disparity between white and minority employees, and has been scrapped.

Several employees have come to the Financial Services Committee with tales of woe from their time at the CFPB, and the committee was actually set to hear from several more at a hearing just hours after Cordray’s appearance.

In his appearance, Cordray said the early days starting the CFPB from scratch may have been tough on some employees, but added that its workers are its ”greatest asset.”

“We were ambitious in what we were trying to accomplish. We tried to doo too much and put too much pressure on our employees,” he said.

However, the committee did not delve into detail on any specific complaints, as Cordray said at the outset he could not opine on particular examples since they were still being worked out.