With the news that President Obama plans to install Richard Cordray as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau through a recess appointment, congressional Republicans for the second time in a month find themselves in something of an uphill battle: The GOP is making an argument based largely on procedure while the White House and Democrats are the ones arguing policy.
Republicans, who have pledged to block any CFPB nominee unless broad structural changes are made to the agency, point out that Democrats have been fiercely opposed to recess appointments in the past, and they’re right.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) explained in floor remarks in December 2007 that he had called the Senate into brief “pro forma” sessions every three days in order to block a recess appointment by President George W. Bush of Steven Bradbury to serve as assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel, a nomination that Senate Democrats opposed.
“I will keep the Senate in pro forma session to block the President from doing an end run around the Senate and the Constitution with his controversial nominations,” Reid said. Reid on Wednesday announced that he supports Obama’s recess appointment of Cordray.
Scores of other Democrats have come out against recess appointments in the past, as well. (The Republican National Committee has put together a helpful collection of past statements from prominent Democrats here.)
The problem for Republicans is that while they’re in the right when it comes to Democrats’ about-face on recess appointments, they face two big roadblocks: the intricacies of procedural arguments often fail to resonate with the public, and Congress’s approval rating remains mired in the single digits.
The White House, meanwhile, can make the argument that it is installing Cordray to make good on a promise of financial regulatory reform. (There’s also the challenge for Republicans that part of the CFPB’s role is to oversee non-bank institutions such as payday lenders and debt collectors – a category of lenders that might be particularly hard for Republicans to cast as “job creators” who are burdened by overregulation.)
Notably, the Cordray fight marks the second time in recent weeks that congressional Republicans have found themselves arguing procedure while Democrats have been arguing policy.
In last month’s payroll tax fight, Democrats made the case that they were fighting against a tax increase for middle-class workers. For about a week, Republicans had succeeded in turning the conversation into a debate over the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline – an issue on which the GOP was clearly on offense.
But then House Republicans revolted to the Senate-passed two-month payroll tax plan, and the debate devolved into one over congressional procedure. And anytime you find yourself using the words “regular order” and “conference committee” in explaining your stand to your constituents, you’re likely to wind up losing them.
The one silver lining for Republicans in the Cordray fight is that it will energize both parties’ bases – and as the 2012 campaign heats up, the GOP base will likely be more focused than ever on taking on Obama.