Maxine Waters is the Wall Street sheriff the people deserve

In the first months of the 116th Congress, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, is showing Democrats how to perform meaningful oversight. Progressives can only hope that less-aggressive committee chairs are taking note.

In her quasi-inaugural address in January, Waters promised heavy scrutiny for Trump’s financial, consumer protection and housing administrators and regulators.

{mosads}As the new sheriff of Wall Street, Waters also vowed to directly examine those private perpetrators of abuse who were enabled by Trump’s team of revolving-door deregulators. 

By the end of February, she had lined up a slew of high-profile hearings, starting with an interrogation of credit-reporting agencies whose mismanagement of consumer data has caused immense harm and rightly earned them ire in recent years.

Next came director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), Kathy Kraninger, followed by the CEO of Wells Fargo, then came Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin and finally the CEOs of the nation’s largest banks

Now, Waters’ Financial Services Committee is joining with the Intelligence Committee to subpoena Trump’s financial records from nine banks. 

These are all strategically effective oversight targets. First, each leads an organization whose actions have caused harm to millions of Americans. Second, each is a deeply unsympathetic figure. Third, and most importantly, none have faced real accountability for their obvious transgressions.

Unlike her predecessor, former Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), Waters is demonstrably leading a charge on behalf of the public interest by going after these figures.   

Beyond adeptly choosing oversight subjects, Waters has also made use of her newest progressive committee members like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.).

Unlike other senior Democratic lawmakers who have busied themselves trying to undercut the caucus’ newest members, Waters has chosen to draw on their strengths. Among those advantages are a deep base of social media followersmedia savvy and a disregard for the false civility that so constraints many senior Democrats.  

As a result, Waters is revealing to the public that those in positions of power do not necessarily deserve to be there, nor do they always (or even often) have the public interest at heart.

Lawmakers’ questioning has highlighted incompetence, such as when CFPB Director Kathy Kraninger failed to exhibit even the most basic understanding of her agency’s work.

At other times, lawmakers have forced witnesses to admit to prioritizing profit over people, or even basic morality, and to their machinations to escape any meaningful accountability for harm they had inflicted. 

In addition to generating momentum for future action, however, many of these hearings have also produced tangible results in real time. Wells Fargo CEO Tim Sloan had stepped down within a matter of days after his appearance before the Financial Services Committee.

The day before Bank of America’s CEO was scheduled to testify before the committee, the bank announced its intention to raise its minimum wage to $20 an hour by 2021. That move will benefit thousands of workers and was at least partially designed to earn some leniency from lawmakers in the following day’s hearing. 

In light of these successes, one might expect that Democratic leadership would be pushing the caucus to replicate Waters’ strategies. Instead, they are actively discouraging lawmakers from emphasizing investigations in an effort to avoid accusations of “overreach.”

Their total surrender to these claims is baffling, as it has always been clear that those crying “overreach” have been attempting to conjure controversy out of thin air.

For one, these concerns find no validation in the history of strong congressional oversight. Furthermore, most of those worrying about overreach started their hand-wringing before Democrats had even won.

Most importantly, their concerns are not broadly shared by the populace, despite bipartisan efforts to fuel such concern. Yet, leadership has let this ridiculous accusation hijack its agenda.  

While Waters has made her successes look easy, it is important to emphasize that none of this was inevitable. In the past four decades, Financial Services has not been the center of aggressive oversight but has instead sat idly by as the financial industry has increasingly come to dominate our economic and political lives.

Rather than acting as a check on this dangerous devolution, it was one of its benefactors.  

{mossecondads}Unlike Waters, Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has shown none of the initiative required to reverse this trend.

As chairman, Neal could have spent these last three months investigating corporate tax avoidance, personal tax evasion, the effects of trade policy or any number of other pressing issues. Instead, those months were spent crafting a request for the president’s tax returns, an important but also painfully simple task. 

Waters is a testament to the fact that institutional inertia can be shaken if the right dose of energy and commitment is applied. We suggest that Democrats mimic her example because she is leading the way on what is both an effective approach to governing and a winning campaign strategy for 2020. 

Jeff Hauser is the founder and director of the Revolving Door Project, an initiative which scrutinizes executive branch appointments, at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Follow him on Twitter: @jeffhauser. Eleanor Eagan, a research assistant, contributed to this piece. 

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bank of America Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Corporate crime Corruption financial oversight House Financial Services Committee House Ways and Means Committee Jeb Hensarling Maxine Waters Maxine Waters Richard Neal Steven Mnuchin Wall Street Wells Fargo

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