The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The clock is running out on Mick Mulvaney

Mick Mulvaney is acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Mick Mulvaney has spent about six months at the helm of one of Washington’s most controversial regulators, and his most visible contribution to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is apparent upon walking through the front door.

There, the four bright-green letters introducing the agency as the “CFPB” have been replaced and shuffled around. Now visitors are greeted with a dark-colored sign identifying the watchdog agency as the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, or BCFP.

That’s the name used in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, which created the agency, Mulvaney said during an interview with reporters Tuesday in the basement of the building. “If your whole theme is going to be ‘We’re going to follow the statute,’ I thought it was a good, small way — but a very visible way — to send a message,” Mulvaney said. Resting on the conference room table was a highlighted copy of the law, which Mulvaney occasionally flipped through as he spoke.

But Mulvaney’s shuffling of a few words in the agency’s name has a more ominous meaning for many consumer advocates, who have raised alarms about his leadership. By putting “bureau” instead of “consumer” first in the name, the agency sounds less like a fighter for consumer interests and more like a bureaucracy, they say. Budget cuts, which Mulvaney said Tuesday could accelerate next year, and other reshuffling have weakened the agency, Democrats and consumer advocates say.

This comes as the statutory clock on Mulvaney’s tenure is running out.

Trump appointed Mulvaney as the CFPB’s acting director in late November. But he can serve in the job for only six months — until June 22, according to the Federal Vacancies Reform Act. If Trump nominates a replacement, it resets the clock, and Mulvaney can continue in the job while the Senate considers Trump’s nominee. That would leave Mulvaney as the acting director through the end of the year.

Mulvaney, who is splitting his time between the CFPB and his job as director of the Office of Management and Budget, said he hasn’t weighed in on the White House process to replace him and has no desire to stay at the CFPB permanently. In fact, he said, he reminded the White House of the deadline recently and was told that Trump had met with a finalist late last week.

“I want to go back to OMB. I love it, OMB,” he said. “It is the job I always wanted in Washington, D.C., and I absolutely loved doing it.”

The White House has not named a nominee for the job — and Mulvaney said he didn’t know who that would be — but financial industry insiders have identified a couple of possible contenders, including J. Mark McWatters, the chairman of the National Credit Union Administration, an industry regulator. McWatters has already survived Senate confirmation for his current job, giving him a better chance of weathering what is expected to be tough scrutiny from Democratic lawmakers, industry analysts say.

But that potential nomination has already drawn protests from one group — the banking industry. Banks have long complained that credit unions receive special treatment by regulators and under the tax law, and they say McWatters would continue that policy. “The CFPB should not be led by the head of an agency that has acted as a cheerleader for the industry under its oversight,” Camden Fine, former president of the Independent Community Bankers of America, said in a January editorial in American Banker.

Mulvaney has not been a typical banking regulator. He has publicly tangled with Democratic lawmakers and even called for the agency he leads to be stripped of some of its powers. Last week, Mulvaney angered Democrats and consumer advocates by firing the agency’s 25-member advisory board, days after some of its members criticized his leadership of the watchdog.

Mulvaney has also significantly cut the agency’s budget. The CFPB would request about $65 million to fund itself during the fourth quarter, he said, bringing its budget for the year to $381.3 million. That is down significantly from the agency’s original budget of $575 million for the year and $602 million last year.

The agency’s staff is developing next year’s budget, which is expected to include another 20 percent cut, Mulvaney said. “I’ve asked them to run through the experiment of reducing spending by 20 percent, and we are very close to finalizing that,” Mulvaney said.

As a congressman, Mulvaney supported legislation that would have closed the bureau, but now he says that’s not likely. “I tell my friends that I expect this entity to be around for a while. If it was going to go away, it would have gone away already,” he said. “There’s just not the political appetite on the Hill right now to legislate the bureau out of existence. So it’s going to remain.”