Will Richard Cordray’s recess appointment to CFPB hurt Obama?

January 5, 2012

President Obama sidestepped the objections of congressional Republicans and gave Richard Cordray a recess appointment to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). As David Nakamura and Felicia Somnez reported:

In a bold act of political defiance, President Obama installed Richard Cordray as head of a new consumer watchdog agency Wednesday, bypassing Republican opposition in the Senate that derailed his nomination last month.

Obama cast the move as an effort to protect the interests of middle-class Americans who have suffered as a result of the Great Recession, which stemmed in part from abuses in the financial system.

“I will not stand by while a minority in the Senate puts party ideology ahead of the people they were elected to serve,” Obama told an enthusiastic crowd at Shaker Heights High School here. “Not when so much is at stake. Not at this make-or-break moment for middle-class Americans.”

Senate Republicans had successfully filibustered Cordray’s nomination to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) last month, and Obama said he would use a recess appointment to overcome their objections and put Cordray, a former Ohio attorney general, in the job. Cordray, 52, has been leading the day-to-day functions of the bureau as an employee of the Treasury Department.

In announcing the decision, Obama said he refused “to take no for an answer” and added that he has an obligation to act when Congress does not.

The appointment marks both the escalation and the denouement of one of the most contentious fights in Washington since Obama, in July 2010, signed into law the legislation establishing the watchdog agency.

Many decried the President’s move as setting a dangerous precedent for such appointments, but others applauded his efforts to overcome a divided Congress. As Susan Brooks Thistlewaite wrote:

Following his recess appointment of Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, President Obama also moved ahead to fill three vacancies on the National Labor Relations Board. While congressional Republicans have chosen to block these appointments through filibusters, they are necessary to enforce regulations on labor and regulations that protect consumers.

There is a larger issue here than a president making appointments to fill vacancies. The issue is the deliberate and sustained obstructionism that has as its goal maintaining vacancies in key positions in government. One or another party may agree on disagree on what government should do, but keeping government dysfunctional is profoundly wrong.

Good government is the first responsibility of those elected to public office. If Congress won’t provide good government, it is up to the President to do so.

Conservatives are crying foul, but there is actually huge precedent for Republican presidents performing recess appointments. President Ronald Reagan made at least three times as many recess appointments each year as has President Obama. It was both legal and necessary for the president to make these recess appointments especially since Congress would not act.

This is not just about politics. As American workers and consumers have become increasingly vulnerable to labor and consumer practices that are less than fair and equitable, they need their government to be on their side.

It is becoming ever more clear that a positive moral case for government is needed. Government should not be operating with a “vacancy” sign out when its most important function is the very opposite: the positive duty to establish justice and provide order. The job of government is to assist citizens by helping to ensure the society in which they live is based on the principles of equality and the common good, to keep them and their communities safe and well-regulated, and to create and sustain a government that protects human rights and the dignity of every human being.

Cordray, the former Ohio attorney general who made a name for himself as a consumer advocate, will begin his tenure at the CFPB under the cloud of his recess appointment. What can be expected of him in his new post? As Suzy Khimm reported :

Cordray first entered public office as a Democratic politician, serving one term as a Ohio state representative in the early 1990s before being redistricted out of office. But he rebounded to serve as treasurer and then attorney general of Ohio — and that’s where he built his reputation as one of the nation’s leading consumer advocates.

As attorney general, Cordray aggressively pursued lawsuits against some of the country’s biggest financial firms — including AIG, Bank of America and Fannie Mae — for misleading the state’s pension funds, ultimately securing a $700 million settlement from AIG over accounting fraud. He also led an early effort to go after so-called “foreclosure mills” that used falsified documents to speed up foreclosures on consumers, suing Ally Financial in 2010 and campaigning for big banks to slow down their own foreclosure proceedings. “We pursued many actions against foreclosure rescue scammers who were reaching into the pockets of desperate people in an effort to steal what little remained as they sought to keep their homes,” Cordray told the Senate banking committee in September.

Cordray had previously expressed interest in running for Ohio governor in 2014, but since his CFPB appointment, he says that he’s abandoned these near-term political ambitions.

Cordray’s pro-consumer, anti-Wall Street background seems well in line with the CFPB’s own mandate. Funded and located inside the Federal Reserve, the CFPB will consolidate oversight of consumer financial products and services that had previously been scattered across seven different agencies. Under Dodd-Frank, the CFPB has the mandate to review all the new rules that are part of Wall Street reform within five years of their implementation. The agency’s purpose is to “address unfair, deceptive, and abusive practices by payday lenders, private student loan providers, debt collectors, and other nonbank lenders, including certain mortgage originators and servicers,” according to Deputy Treasury Secretary Neil Wolin. And it has the responsibility of overseeing all banks with deposits over $10 billion in line with such a mandate.

More from PostPolitics

What is a recess appointment?

Richard Corday appointment: Anatomy of a White House media blitz

Is the Cordray appointment constitional?

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