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Trump CFPB nominee grilled by Senate Democrats

Kathy Kraninger, the president's nominee for director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, spoke with members of the Senate Banking Committee during a confirmation hearing Thursday. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Kathy Kraninger, President Trump’s nominee to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, repeatedly dodged questions from Senate Democrats on Thursday about issues facing the watchdog agency and her involvement in the administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy.

Kraninger, a White House budget official, emerged largely unscathed from the more than two-hour hearing before the Senate Banking Committee, during which she told lawmakers that the bureau would be “fair and transparent” under her leadership.

Republican senators, who have long despised the CFPB, praised Kraninger’s experience, most recently in the White House’s budget office. “Many of us have experienced frustration with the bureau in previous years,” said Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), chair of the committee. “It is my hope that, if confirmed, Ms. Kraninger will be more accountable” than the agency’s previous director, Richard Cordray.

But Kraninger’s evasiveness in key areas appeared to exasperate Democratic lawmakers. “I am trying to get an answer from you. And I just can’t. And it’s maddening,” a visibly frustrated Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) repeatedly lashed out at Kraninger for giving “lawyerly and limited” answers. “You’re dodging,” Warren said.

The hearing marked Kraninger’s first public statements since being nominated by Trump last month to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a powerful banking regulator. Her nomination took much of Washington by surprise. Kraninger has decades of experience in homeland security, including helping set up the Department of Homeland Security after Sept. 11, 2001, but she has no record as a financial regulator.

Her closest brush with the bureau appears to be her current role at the Office of Management and Budget in crafting Trump’s 2019 budget plan, which called for significantly cutting the consumer bureau’s budget and restricting its enforcement powers.

CFPB official drops fight for leadership of watchdog agency

In one exchange, Warren, who helped set up the bureau, noted that the spending proposal called for cutting the bureau’s 2019 budget by 23 percent, or $147 million. “In order to achieve the 23 percent cut you have proposed, would you fire civil servants?” Warren asked.

“That is the president’s budget request and not mine. Certainly, I did support its development,” Kraninger responded before Warren cut her off and pressed the issue further.

“Can you just give me a yes or no? Will you fire civil servants?” Warren asked.

Kraninger replied that “there are laws in place that protect civil servants.”

Kraninger, 43, is expected to have enough Republican support to get Senate approval, which even some Democrats on the committee acknowledged, ushering in a new era for the CFPB. If confirmed, she would replace the bureau’s acting director, Mick Mulvaney, who is also the White House budget chief and Kraninger’s current boss. She would be only the second permanent director in the history of the agency, which was established in the wake of the global financial crisis.

During her testimony, Kraninger indicated she would continue the pro-business shift at the agency started by Mulvaney more than six months ago. Among her priorities, Kraninger said, was the use of cost-benefit analysis to measure the price tag of regulations to industries. The bureau would continue to go after bad industry behavior, she said, noting the CFPB was still investigating the massive breach at Equifax that compromised the sensitive data of 148 million people.

“The Equifax fallout is going to be with us for a long time,” Kraninger told lawmakers. If confirmed by the Senate, “I will be grappling with the steps that need to be taken there.”

During the hearing, Kraninger offered lawmakers broad assurances that she would rely on agency experts when weighing important matters, but she gave few specifics, including on whether the CFPB should repeal its payday lending regulations. “While I will not prejudge and cannot predict every decision that will come before me as director, if confirmed, I can assure you that I will focus solely on serving the American people,” Kraninger said.

Democrats and consumer advocates have criticized Kraninger’s lack of experience in consumer finance and worry she would continue Mulvaney’s efforts to weaken the agency and roll back its powers. If confirmed by the Senate, Kraninger would hold significant sway over the way banks manage mortgages, credit cards, payday loans and other financial products they offer to customers. Without a deep understanding of the history and complexity of the topic, the critics say, Kraninger could become a puppet for influential financial groups.

“We want somebody in that job who not only has core competency but also some empathy,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.).

Kraninger also faced several questions from Democratic senators about whether she had helped to craft the administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy that separated families of undocumented immigrants. At the budget office, Kraninger oversees budget requests from several government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, which enforced the policy.

Kraninger told the lawmakers she had played no role in “setting the policy” but repeatedly refused to answer questions about whether she had supported it or helped implement it. “I don’t believe it’s appropriate or fair or right to articulate the advice that I gave,” she said.

Once again, Kraninger found herself in a tussle with Warren, who at one point asked whether Kraninger thought the immigration policy was immoral. “It’s not appropriate to give my personal opinion,” Kraninger responded.

“It is fundamentally immoral, and you were a part of it. It is a stain that will follow you for the rest of your life,” Warren shot back. “If you are given a big promotion it will be a stain on the senators who do it.”