After more than three years helping lead one of the country’s most powerful Wall Street regulators, Sharon Bowen is ready to step down.
Her pending departure from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission will leave the five-member board with just one member. And that is a problem for a panel responsible for regulating some of the country’s most complex financial markets.
It is also a problem for President Trump. This week, his administration again reiterated its pledge to rid the government of cumbersome regulations it contends are strangling business. But the task is proving difficult to achieve, because many regulations are written to enforce congressionally authorized laws and the White House cannot unilaterally remove them. And even in the areas where the administration has the power, it needs to write new rules to replace old ones.
While there may be plenty of career bureaucrats to craft the new language, there is a decided lack of deciders at the helm of many agencies to approve them, particularly in the financial regulatory sphere.
In addition to openings at the CFTC, the Securities and Exchange Commission needs two more commissioners, and three positions remain open on the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors. Trump’s pick to lead the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Jim Clinger, recently withdrew his nomination, citing family issues.
Many presidents struggle to quickly fill vacant seats, but “the Trump administration has just done it much worse,” said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan group that studies government management. At this point in the Obama administration, 203 positions that require Senate confirmation were filled, while Trump has been able to fill just 50 of those positions, according to data tracked by the group.
Bowen said she hoped her departure — a year before the end of her term — would give the administration an extra shove to begin filling seats on the CFTC. Just two board members could legally approve noncontroversial items, but legal experts say it is unclear whether one would have the same power.
“I am not running for the exit,” Bowen said in an interview, adding, “I am hoping it will create momentum to put people in place.”
Some on Wall Street, once excited about the prospects of a businessman in office, are growing impatient.
For example, Federal Reserve leaders have indicated they would be willing to simplify the yearly “stress tests” big banks must endure to prove they could survive an economic crisis, a long-held Wall Street wish. But, so far, it has not happened.
“If they had more governors they could do it more quickly,” said Wayne Abernathy, a lobbyist for the American Bankers Association.
Compared with his predecessors’, Trump’s nomination process has been slow, industry officials say, noting that President Barack Obama was facing a financial crisis when he took office and quickly outlined his economic team. But the slow place is part of a long-term pattern, said Justin Schardin, director of the Financial Regulatory Reform Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
It now takes three times as long as it did before 1990 for a president to nominate and the Senate to confirm a financial regulator, according to a March study by the Bipartisan Policy Center. The trend is most apparent at the Fed. Between 1947 and 1986, it took 93 days to return the board to its full seven members. Since then it has taken an average of 676 days, according to the study.
“When you’re in the area of financial services, you want to get people who know what they’re doing. Finding those kinds of people takes time,” Abernathy said. “It is not at all unusual that you would have this many openings halfway through the year.”
But the problem can also be traced back to stalling tactics deployed by Republicans during the Obama administration, said Ed Mills, a policy analyst at the investment bank FBR Capital Markets. Some nominees never received a Senate hearing, he said, so when Trump took office there was already a higher-than-normal level of vacancies. At the time, Republicans were attempting to slow the implementation of the 2010 financial overhaul legislation known as the Dodd-Frank Act, Mills said.
“If you couldn’t repeal Dodd-Frank, not confirming the commissioners needed to implement the regulations was just as good,” he said.
At the SEC, which is tasked with protecting investors and policing corporations, it was Democrats who prevented the Obama administration from filling two open seats on its five-member commission. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and other Democrats opposed the nominees because they did not support requiring publicly traded corporations to disclose political spending. Their objections left the seats unfilled and gave any one of the three remaining commissioners the ability to grind action to a halt by simply not showing up for a meeting.
“That is about to change. We are going to see a push to have commission members approved so they can fulfill the deregulatory agenda pushed by President Trump,” Mills said.
The White House appears to be accelerating its efforts to fill these key positions, especially since the appointment of Andrew Olmem as special assistant for financial policy for the National Economic Council. The Senate approved the nomination of Jay Clayton, a Wall Street lawyer, to lead the SEC in May, and Trump announced that he will nominate Randal Quarles, a former Treasury Department official and private-equity investor, to fill a vacant seat on the Fed’s Board of Governors, an influential position overseeing the banking system. But two more positions remain open on the Fed board, and speculation has already begun about who could replace Fed Chair Janet L. Yellen when her term expires next year.
“The administration is making very good progress on filling nominations in the face of unprecedented obstruction from Senate Democrats,” Natalie Strom, a White House spokeswoman, said in a statement. “The President already has Jay Clayton in place at the SEC and has nominated a series of other highly qualified individuals to other financial regulatory positions . . . whom he looks forward to seeing confirmed soon.”
And despite the delays, industry officials say they have begun to notice a change among regulators. Instead of pushing aggressively toward new rules, many agencies have indicated that they are reviewing the current regulatory regime, they say.
“We welcome that change in tone. We have some ideas, and we are finding a receptive audience on the government side,” said Eric Hoplin, executive director of the Financial Services Roundtable, whose members include major banking, insurance and credit-card companies. “When it comes to these incredibly complex jobs and finding people that have the experience to do that, it can be difficult. . . . We’re being patient.”
“For us, the right people is more important than speed,” he said.
At the CFTC, the task of filling the empty positions is significant and comes as the agency continues to adjust to drastically broader powers it was given after the 2008 financial crisis to regulate some of the most complex parts of the financial market.
“The CFTC went from an agency that no one cared about to one of the most aggressive enforcers of Dodd-Frank,” Mills said.
The agency has not had a full commission with five members since 2014. The problem became more acute when Trump came into office and the head of the agency, Tim Massad, stepped down. Work at the agency has been “hampered” with the lack of manpower, said Bowen, the commissioner who wants to step down.
The agency currently has only two members, Republican Chris Giancarlo, whom Trump has nominated to take over as commission chair, and Bowen, a Democrat. Both members must agree for the agency to take major action, but they are not allowed to meet privately to discuss potential policies, because it would constitute an official meeting open to the public. Instead, their staff members often shuttle messages between them and serve as conduits to debating issues, Bowen said. “It just makes for some inefficiencies,” she said.
For Wall Street, this has meant slowing the process of loosening regulations. At a March industry conference, Giancarlo announced the launch of Project KISS, or “Keep It Simple Stupid,” an agency-wide review of CFTC rules and regulations to make them simpler, less burdensome and less costly.
“Americans have voted for a change in the direction of the country, a change back toward economic growth and broad-based prosperity,” Giancarlo said during a conference in March. “And our industry has a role to play.”
But such significant changes are not likely until the vacant positions are filled.
“The happy impact is that arguably less is taking place than with a full complement of commissioners,” said Bart Naylor, a financial-policy advocate for the public interest group Public Citizen. “When he has a full commission, he won’t have anything to retard that ambition.”
Trump has nominated two Republicans, Dawn Stump and Brian Quintenz, to fill positions on the commission. The Senate Agriculture Committee has scheduled nomination hearings for next week, but it is unclear how quickly the full Senate will vote. Giancarlo is leading the agency on an acting basis, since the full Senate has yet to approve his nomination.