Tensions flare as Democrats urge consumer bureau to boost penalties

Tensions flare as Democrats urge consumer bureau to boost penalties
© Greg Nash

Tensions flared at a House committee hearing Wednesday as Democrats accused a powerful federal watchdog of shirking its obligation to protect consumers from financial fraud.

A House Financial Services Committee hearing with Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) Director Kathy Kraninger quickly devolved after a top Democratic congresswoman insisted the bureau had abandoned its mission under her watch.

“If you're not following direction from your staff to help consumers that are harmed, then you are absolutely worthless,” said Rep. Carolyn MaloneyCarolyn Bosher MaloneyMedia, entertainment groups press Congress to provide pandemic risk insurance New York City will not start counting mailed primary ballots until next week The Hill's Morning Report - Republicans shift, urge people to wear masks MORE (D-N.Y.).

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Maloney was referencing Kraninger’s decision to not seek payback for consumers in a January legal settlement with Enova International, an online lender accused of illegally collecting debts from consumers.

While Kraninger approved a $3.2 million fine, she did not seek restitution for consumers, despite recommendations from career staff to do so, according to documents released by the committee Wednesday.

Though Kraninger had already faced criticism on the settlement from the panel’s chairwoman, Rep. Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersOn The Money: Mnuchin, Powell differ over how soon economy will recover | Millions fear eviction without more aid from Congress | IRS chief pledges to work on tax code's role in racial wealth disparities Millions fear eviction without more aid from Congress House approves statehood for DC in 232-180 vote MORE (D-Calif.), Republicans erupted after Maloney rebuked Kraninger’s leadership.

Rep. Ann WagnerAnn Louise WagnerSEC's Clayton demurs on firing of Manhattan US attorney he would replace Trump, GOP go all-in on anti-China strategy House passes massive T coronavirus relief package MORE (R-Mo.) urged Waters to enforce the committee’s rules of decorum and denounce Maloney, but her request was swiftly denied.

"The chair is in charge and the chair will decide exactly how this committee will be run,” Waters shot back. “Thank you for your comments."

Rep. Bill PoseyWilliam (Bill) Joseph PoseyHouse Republicans urge White House to support TSA giving travelers temperature checks House Republican introduces bill to hold up members' pay if they vote by proxy Trump takes track to open Daytona 500 MORE (R-Fla.) ripped Democrats for their “denigration” of Kraninger, arguing he would be dismissed from the committee if he spoke that way about her Obama-era predecessor, Richard CordrayRichard Adams CordraySupreme Court ruling could unleash new legal challenges to consumer bureau Supreme Court rules consumer bureau director can be fired at will Poll: Biden, Trump neck and neck in Ohio MORE.

Posey then accused the Democrats of treating Kraninger with a “double standard” after Cordray set "a new level of bureaucratic petulance, arrogance, and defiance."

Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.) said that if Republicans ever addressed Cordray or Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenHouse Armed Services votes to make Pentagon rename Confederate-named bases in a year Overnight Defense: House panel votes to ban Confederate flag on all Pentagon property | DOD report says Russia working to speed US withdrawal from Afghanistan | 'Gang of Eight' to get briefing on bounties Thursday Liberal veterans group urges Biden to name Duckworth VP MORE (D-Mass.), the architect of the agency, that way, “there would be rioting out in those halls right now.”

“You frankly deserve an apology,” Huizenga added.

Lawmakers on the panel have battled for years over the CFPB and its immense authority, and Wednesday's hearing highlighted the partisan rancor that has overshadowed the agency.

On Wednesday, Democrats had little patience for objections from Republicans, who argued that the GOP routinely berated Cordray when he appeared before the committee.

“I do recall conversations from my friends on the other side with the previous director when they were actually screaming at the top of their lungs and calling him names,” said Rep. Juan VargasJuan C. VargasHispanic Caucus asks Trump to rescind invitation to Mexican president Activists, analysts demand Congress consider immigrants in coronavirus package Biden rolls out over a dozen congressional endorsements after latest primary wins MORE (D-Calif.).  “If you look at the record, that’s there too.”

Nonetheless, Maloney apologized to Kraninger, explaining she did not “intend to say that [she] was worthless.”

“I only intended to echo the chairman's point about the bureau making consumers whole. I didn't intend to disrespect the director personally, and I'm sorry for the confusion that my statement caused.”

Kraninger has faced constant criticism from Democrats since taking over the CFPB in December 2018 from acting Director Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneySupreme Court ruling could unleash new legal challenges to consumer bureau Bottom line White House goes through dizzying change in staff MORE, who now serves as acting White House chief of staff.

Kraninger had pledged to stabilize the CFPB after Mulvaney’s efforts to gut the agency. But Democrats and consumer advocates have condemned her efforts to loosen CFPB regulations on payday lending and easing oversight of financial institutions.

Republicans and financial industry advocates who have long been critical of the CFPB’s power have praised Kraninger and her willingness to reign in the bureau. Several suggested that Democrats had suffered from buyer’s remorse by giving the CFPB director immense personal power.

“They ought to blame themselves,” said Rep. Andy BarrAndy BarrThe Hill's Campaign Report: The political heavyweights in Tuesday's primary fights Democrat Josh Hicks wins Kentucky primary to challenge Andy Barr McGrath fends off Booker to win Kentucky Senate primary MORE (R-Ky.). “They deliberately designed an agency to elude congressional oversight or accountability.”

Hanging over the hearing was also a larger fight in the courts over the agency.

Democrats responded with outrage last month after Kraninger filed a joint brief with the Justice Department urging the Supreme Court to take up a case challenging the constitutionality of the bureau.

Top Justice Department and CFPB attorneys argued in a brief that the structure of the powerful financial watchdog infringes on the president’s executive authority. 

Kraninger also explained in a letter to lawmakers that she supported a ruling that would allow the president to fire the director at will, regardless of the personal consequences.

The move has angered Democrats, who see it as a serious threat to the agency. Democrats on the committee blasted Kraninger for the move.

"Congress deliberately created the CFPB as an independent regulator, and for you to second guess Congress's judgment on this constitutionality of the CFPB and to argue against the CFPB structure in court is disrespectful of Congress," said Maloney.

Kraninger added Wednesday that resolving the issue of the CFPB’s legal structure would allow the bureau to focus its time and efforts on enforcing consumer protection law.

“The constitutional question has delayed many enforcement actions, it has delayed regulatory actions and has been something that I believe fundamentally the Supreme Court and Congress need to decide and settle, once and for all, so that the bureau can move forward and finish and actually engaged in its mission,” Kraninger said.

Updated at 3:31 p.m.