As people take sides in the battle for temporary control of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), let’s not lose sight of a major truth this fight reveals: President Trump is not getting much of his own agenda through, and his only real bragging points so far are his “successes” in taking apart the accomplishments of the Obama administration.
In one sense, this is really what is at stake in the court battle over who is going to run the agency, which pits Richard Cordray’s choice of Leandra English against Trump’s equally temporary pick of White House budget director Mick Mulvaney.
Rumors that Richard Cordray would resign before the end of his term in 2018 have swirled in Washington for months. Many congressional Republicans and major financial institutions have been waiting for this moment for years. Under normal circumstances, any halfway competent presidential administration would have had a nominee ready to go. The Trump administration could be quickly launching into an effort to shepherd the president’s choice through the Senate approval process.
Instead, there is no sense of who Trump is considering or when that might be announced. And now English and Mulvaney are battling in U.S. District Court in Washington, where the case was assigned this afternoon to a judge appointed by Trump this year. The lack of any obvious plan suggests the main short-term goal of the Trump administration is to stick a thumb in the eye of the Obama administration, rather than move quickly to push its own — or the GOP’s — priorities.
Mulvaney, to be sure, is like other conservative Republicans, in that he has long had a contentious relationship with the CFPB. He’s called the agency a “joke” and has said such things as “I don’t like the fact that CFPB exists.” He’s signed on to legislation giving states the rights to not enforce CFPB regulations on payday loans for a five-year period, and even to do away with his new job as head of the bureau in favor of a five-member oversight panel. But if the administration has a game plan for what’s next, it’s not clear what it is.
Viewed through a conventional lens, Trump’s not exactly had a successful year for a first-term president. Many campaign promises have gone unfulfilled. There is no wall being built on the southern border. Repeal of the Affordable Care Act imploded. While he endorsed Luther Strange in the Alabama Republican senatorial primary, voters gave their nod to accused sexual predator Roy Moore. Tax reform is unpopular and far from a done deal.
But when it comes to rolling back Obama-era regulations, Trump’s on a roll and then some. He pulled out of the Paris climate agreement. He’s done away with efforts to combat pay discrimination and improve workplace safety. He’s signed off on more than a dozen regulatory repeals via the Congressional Review Act, which, prior to Trump, was used exactly once, in 2001.
Meanwhile, whether someone with Mulvaney’s track record on the CFPB could get through a Senate confirmation process is a giant question mark. The agency is extremely popular. A poll done for Americans for Financial Reform and the Center for Responsible Lending discovered 73 percent of those surveyed approved of the bureau and its mission, a sentiment shared by 77 percent of independent voters. The closer we get to the 2018 elections, the harder it will be for GOP senators – especially those up for reelection – to confirm Mulvaney or someone like him.
But with Mulvaney in place even temporarily, lots of damage can be done to the CFPB. As the Wall Street Journal wrote on Sunday:
Other possible actions include delaying the enactment of a recently issued rule on high-interest small consumer loans known as payday lending, amending a 2013 mortgage rule that tightened underwriting standards and reassessing pending lawsuits against companies such as student-loan servicer Navient Corp.
And late last week Reuters reported that the CFPB was preparing to file a lawsuit against the bank Santander, claiming it forced unneeded auto insurance on auto loan borrowers, running up their costs. Call me cynical, but I wouldn’t expect this to happen with Mulvaney in charge.
It’s also hard to miss the sense that Trump’s battle with the CFPB is more than a bit personal. He despise Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who originated the agency, and routinely refers to her as “Pocahontas.” He’d love to score one over her, and gutting the CFPB is as good as it gets.
This is what passes for success in Trump’s world. Trump’s never had a real agenda other, perhaps, than enriching his own bottom line. He campaigned as a populist, then seemingly delegated his policy agenda to the Wall Street wing of the Republican Party. Yet even so, victories over there are few and far between. All he can do is take advantage of his power to make changes to the regulatory apparatus and do what he can in that way to destroy Obama’s legacy. Right now, this means getting his own temporary wrecking crew of a man installed at the head of the CFBP. If he’s successful, we’ll all be worse off for it.