On Tuesday, Democrats will use what would normally be a straightforward exercise of the Senate’s advise and consent powers to begin a political campaign aimed at preserving one of the party’s signature Obama-era accomplishments.
At 10:00 a.m., in the Dirksen Senate office building, the Senate Banking Committee will convene a hearing to advance the nomination of Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
If you recognize Cordray as the current director of the CFPB, you’ll wonder why the Senate has anything left to say about his role as one of the top cops on Wall Street. But its involvement is a direct consequence of a GOP effort to combine the Senate’s filibuster rules with its advise-and-consent powers to gut the agency. And unless the Democrats can force an end to that effort, the CFPB will lose its director — and many of its existing powers at the end of the year.
The CFPB is a new regulatory agency Democrats created to protect consumers from fraudulent financial products when they passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in 2010. It is housed within the Federal Reserve, and derives its funding directly from the central bank, to keep it, like all other major financial regulators, at least partially insulated from political retribution during the appropriations process on Capitol Hill.
But from the moment the agency was conceived, Republicans have despised it, and once it was born, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) organized his members around a promise to block the confirmation of any CFPB director, unless and until Democrat agreed to weaken the agency, including by placing Congress in charge of its budget every year.
And in December 2011 that’s exactly what they did. The vote was 53-45 — enough to confirm him if he’d been given an up-or-down vote, but seven votes shy of the 60 required to break the filibuster.
During a subsequent recess, President Obama used his recess appointment power to place Cordray at the helm of the agency for two years. But that appointment expires at the end of December, and could end sooner if a federal appeals cour ruling limiting Obama’s use of the recess appointment power is upheld.
Enter the Democrats, who will attempt to marshal public and industry opinion to pry a handful of Republicans away from their filibuster commitment.
Ahead of the debate, Americans for Financial Reform and other CFPB supporters are ratcheting up pressure on the Senate to confirm Cordray.
But if Republicans can’t be persuaded, Democrats will face a choice. They’ll either have to change the Senate’s filibuster rules or accept the fact that CFPB will automatically shed some of its hard-won powers the moment it loses its director.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.