President Obama appointed Richard Cordray as head of a federal consumer watchdog agency on Wednesday, defiantly using his executive authority after the Senate rejected the nomination last month.
Speaking in Cordray’s home state of Ohio, where Cordray served as attorney general until losing reelection in 2010, Obama chided Senate Republicans for holding up the nomination since last summer, saying, “I refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer.”
“For almost half a year, Republicans in the Senate have blocked Richard’s nomination,” refusing to even give him an up or down vote, Obama said. “This is not because Richard is not qualified.” Cordray, Obama said, had the support of Democrats, a majority of state attorneys general and a majority of the Senate itself.
“The only reason Republicans in senate have blocked Richard is because ... they want to weaken the [financial reform] law,” he said. “That makes no sense. We shouldn’t be weakening oversight; we shouldn’t be weakening accountability. We should be strengthening them,” especially for working families.
The president portrayed the appointment as an escalation of the White House’s “we can’t wait” campaign to take action that does not require congressional approval.
Administration aides have said that Obama is contrasting his efforts to stimulate the economy with what he argues is a Congress stuck in partisan gridlock as part of his reelection strategy.
In a rebuke to Republican leaders, the White House determined that it may make an unprecedented recess appointment even though the Senate remains in pro forma session. Obama is essentially declaring that session a gimmick designed to stymie the administration.
The action is likely to infuriate the Republican legislators who do not want Cordray to lead the agency. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was created under Dodd-Frank legislation to oversee mortgage companies, payday lenders and debt collectors, among others. Obama pushed through the financial reform legislation during a fierce battle with GOP leaders
In a visit Wednesday to the Cleveland home of William and Endia Eason, who he said were victims of predatory lending, Obama blamed the “trickery and abuse” of the non-banking financial sector for the Easons’ woes and said, “We’re going to have to do something about it.”
He added: “We’re so glad that we’ve got somebody like Rich Cordray, who’s willing to take this on and make sure that families like the Easons who do the right thing ... are not taken advantage of and are able to live in security and in dignity in their golden years.”
According to the Congressional Research Service, the shortest recess during which a presidential appointment has been made in the past 20 years was 10 days. The appointee also could only serve until the next session of Congress; a confirmed CFPB director would serve for five years.
Obama’s decision to bypass the Senate could prompt GOP members to push even harder to block the president’s nominees and could also spark a legal challenge to his authority to make such an appointment.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a statement that Obama “has arrogantly circumvented the American people,” and he called the tactic of using a recess appointment “uncertain legal territory.”
Obama’s action “threatens the confirmation process and fundamentally endangers the Congress’s role in providing a check on the excesses of the executive branch,” McConnell said.
White House press secretary Jay Carney noted Wednesday that 53 Senate Democrats voted in favor of allowing the Cordray nomination to proceed last month, but that was not the required 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster.
Cordray “won a majority of support in the Senate, yet Republicans refused to allow him an up or down vote. This is a shame,” Carney said.
Senate Democrats defended the Obama administration’s move.
Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) said in a statement that Cordray “is eminently qualified for the job, as even my Senate Republican colleagues have acknowledged.”
“It’s disappointing that Senate Republicans denied him an up-or-down vote, especially when it’s clear he had the support of a majority of the Senate,” Johnson said.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), also on the Banking Committee, said: “American families deserve a cop on this beat — someone to keep the marketplace fair and protect against the financial scams and predatory schemes that have resulted in millions of Americans losing their homes and livelihoods....
“Given the importance of ending predatory schemes aimed at working families across America, I am pleased that the President is appointing Richard Cordray and giving the American people a fully up-and-running Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.”
Obama appointed Cordray to lead the bureau in July, bypassing Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren, who faced fierce opposition from Republicans concerned by her strong views on the behavior of financial firms. Warren had spent about a year setting up the bureau as interim chief.
Cordray attended the University of Chicago Law School and clerked for moderate Supreme Court Justices Byron R. White and Anthony M. Kennedy.
He worked for more than a decade at the Kirkland & Ellis law firm, a significant Democratic donor. During his two years as Ohio’s attorney general, he launched a number of high-profile lawsuits to recover money for injured investors. Well before a furor erupted over shoddy and fraudulent foreclosure paperwork at the nation’s major lenders, Cordray aggressively went after financial firms for such practices.
In rejecting Cordray’s appointment, Senate Republicans said they were challenging the structure of the agency’s oversight, which they argue should be done by a five-member commission. But the president has dismissed that argument as the main deal-breaker, saying that Congress has deliberately blocked his nominees as a way to slow his policy agenda.
“This makes no sense. Consumers across the country understand part of the reason we got into the financial mess we did is because regulators are not doing their jobs. ... There is no reason why Mr. Cordray should not be nominated or confirmed by the Senate and should not be doing this job,” the president complained.
“We are not giving up on this. We’ll keep on going at it. We will not allow politics as usual on Capitol Hill to stand in the way of American consumers being protected from unscrupulous operators.”
The administration’s decision was first reported by the Associated Press.
Administration officials did not say Wednesday whether Obama also would issue recess appointments of other nominees awaiting Senate confirmation votes. Among those are nominees for deputy and assistant secretaries at the departments of Commerce, Energy, Justice and State; and picks to serve on the boards of the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Federal Trade Commission.
Staff writer Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.