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 MaloneyThe Hill's Morning Report - Sanders takes incoming during intense SC debate Oversight Committee room to be dedicated to late Rep. Elijah Cummings House wants documents on McEntee's security clearances 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 WatersMaxine Waters: Gang members have 'more integrity' than 'street player' Trump Maxine Waters blasts Trump as 'mafia boss' over Stone case Democrats highlight lack of diversity at major banks in new report MORE (D-Calif.), Republicans erupted after Maloney rebuked Kraninger’s leadership.

Rep. Ann WagnerAnn Louise WagnerOvernight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Democrats seek to preempt Trump message on health care | E-cigarette executives set for grilling | Dems urge emergency funding for coronavirus Democrats slam GOP on drug prices in bilingual digital ads Overnight Health Care — Presented by Philip Morris International — Dems warn Trump against Medicaid block grants | Sanders under pressure on how to pay for 'Medicare for All' | China to allow in US health officials to study coronavirus 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 PoseyTrump takes track to open Daytona 500 Fed chief issues stark warning to Congress on deficits Scientists join Democrats in panning EPA's 'secret science' rule 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 CordrayTo understand true impact of proposed interest rate caps, listen to history and borrowers Democrats blast consumer bureau over student loan oversight agreement with DeVos Consumer bureau chief explains support for lawsuit limiting her power 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 Ann WarrenBloomberg: 'I'm going to stay right to the bitter end' of Democratic primary race The Memo: Biden seeks revival in South Carolina Sanders holds 13-point lead in Fox News poll 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. VargasThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Pence taps health official to aid coronavirus response Vulnerable Democrats brace for Sanders atop ticket Democrats press World Bank chief on meeting with Ukrainian president amid Trump pressure 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 MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyWhite House preparing to ask Congress for funds to combat coronavirus: report Tucker Carlson calls out Mick Mulvaney on immigration remarks: 'Dishonest and stupid' Trump furious after officials allowed Americans with coronavirus to fly home with other passengers: report 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 Hale BarrOvernight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Democrats seek to preempt Trump message on health care | E-cigarette executives set for grilling | Dems urge emergency funding for coronavirus Democrats slam GOP on drug prices in bilingual digital ads On the Trail: Forget the pundits, more electoral votes could be in play in 2020 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.