Richard Cordray testifies before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. (Shirley Li/Medill)

WASHINGTON – The flames of controversy that burst over President Barack Obama’s recess appointment of Richard Cordray as Director of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are still smoldering.

Four Republican members of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee boycotted Tuesday’s hearing, a meeting to review the consumer bureau’s first semi-annual report released Monday. Chairman Tim Johnson, a Democrat from South Dakota, tried to deal with  the conflict after noticing the empty seats.

“I would remind my colleagues that we are not here today to debate Mr. Cordray’s appointment,” Johnson said. “Our job is to roll up our sleeves and provide meaningful oversight… I remain optimistic we will find common ground.”

But this “common ground” could not be reached.

Of the four GOP members who did show up, Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., immediately began grilling Cordray on his nomination.

“I don’t know how anyone could maintain at this point that your appointment and your service in this position is valid,” Johanns said. “In your case, if we accept the premise of your validity in this position, then we accept the premise that our ability to offer advice and consent basically disappears.”

The question of Cordray’s “validity” goes to the debate over whether the Senate was in session at the time of his appointment. Republicans say “yes,” because the Senate was holding pro forma sessions, while Democrats argue that such meetings are too short and lacking in substance to count.

Obama named Cordray while the Senate was in “recess,” because Republicans refused to allow a straight up or down vote on the nomination. It was nothing personal. The GOP vehemently opposed the Dodd-Frank Act which created his agency.

In committee Tuesday, the debate escalated quickly, as members from both parties fanned the flames. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, defended Cordray, a Democrat and former Ohio attorney general.

“I just simply still can’t believe we’re having this debate. Richard Cordray’s job is so important,” he said. “This is the first time…in American history, according to the Senate historian, where a political party has blocked a nominee simply because they don’t like the agency.”

As Cordray quietly listened, nodding his head, and committee ranking member Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., covered his face in his hands, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., attempted to extinguish the argument, observing that Republicans failed to carry out a complete boycott.

“I can’t help but note the fact that we had a healthy attendance in committee this morning,” he said. “Plans of a mass protest appear not to have gone over with many members. It’s a losing fight, politically, for them.”

“Let’s move on,” he added. “People are tired of obstructionism for the sake of obstructionism.”

The Democratic members followed his lead, and returned the conversation to focus on the consumer bureau.  North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, asked Cordray about pay-day loans and overdraft policies in checking accounts. Cordray said the consumer bureau draft rules requiring lenders to verify that borrowers have enough income to pay them back.

The hearing also shed light on the consumer bureau’s policies on credit reform and regulation of small businesses and community banking, which Cordray said the bureau will address by creating special advisory panels. But when the committee kept returning to the subject of his appointment, Cordray could not avoid responding.

“I have been appointed as director,” he said. “I now have legal obligations I’m supposed to carry out for this bureau. I’m going to do that… It seems to me the best I can do at this point.”

Johnson echoed Cordray’s words before he gaveled the hearing to a close.

“The fact of the matter is he is now the director of the CFPB,” he said. “It is time for us all to put politics aside and work together to protect consumers.”

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