June 10, 2011

THE CONSTITUTION grants the Senate power to advise and consent to certain presidential nominees. It doesn’t, last we checked, give the Senate the right to ignore that responsibility. That, however, seems to be the stance of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his colleagues when it comes to the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Republicans have made clear their opposition to Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard Law School professor who has been tasked with helping set up the bureau and who liberal groups insist must be nominated to head it. But as Senate Republicans stated in a letter last month to President Obama and as Mr. McConnell’s spokesman reaffirmed this week, the opposition “is not Elizabeth Warren-specific. It’s any nominee.” The Republicans have vowed to block any choice unless the statute creating the CFPB is rewritten to replace the single director with a multiple-member board and to redo the funding mechanism to subject it to the normal congressional appropriations process. Without these changes, Republicans say, there will be no confirmed nominee.

Republicans may have a legitimate complaint about the structure of the agency. Unlike regulators such as the five-member Securities and Exchange Commission, the CFPB would be under the control of a single, powerful individual. That power would be further enhanced by the funding structure under which the agency, like other regulators such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Comptroller of the Currency, would get its money from the Federal Reserve Board rather than through congressional appropriations. There is always a tension between oversight and independence. But whatever the merits of the argument that the CFPB tilts too far in favor of the latter, Republicans lost it last year, when the bureau was created as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. They are free to try to change the law, but they are not entitled to ignore it — or to hold the eventual nominee hostage to their demands.

The CFPB dispute is, sadly, reflective of a broader problem with the Senate confirmation process. This week also saw the withdrawal of Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Peter Diamond to a seat on the Federal Reserve. Mr. Diamond won the Nobel Prize in economics last year, but Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, deemed him unqualified for the Fed post.

“It is clear to many of us that he does not possess the appropriate background, experience or policy preferences to serve,” Mr. Shelby said of Mr. Diamond in March. It is clear to anyone who is watching the Senate that the confirmation process is more broken than ever.