As we had indicated, on March 16, the subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the House Financial Services Committee conducted a hearing entitled “The Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection’s Unconstitutional Design.” Unsurprisingly, Republicans and Democrats on the subcommittee talked past each other in making remarks and questioning the four witnesses: Ted Olson, Saikrishna Prakash, Adam White, and Brianne Gorod.
The Democrats on the subcommittee, by and large, ignored the constitutional issues. One Democratic subcommittee member, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, stated that the constitutional arguments are a “subterfuge” for business interests’ desire to go back to having the un-checked ability to abuse consumers. Instead of the constitutional issues, subcommittee Democrats focused principally on the “good” outcomes that the CFPB has achieved for consumers. They cited the billions and billions in fines and redress that the CFPB has extracted from the financial services industry, among other things. Various Democratic subcommittee members vowed to protect the CFPB from being dismantled by what they saw as the forces of evil.
Oddly, the ranking member of the subcommittee, Al Green, a Democrat from Texas, spent almost all of his time criticizing the subcommittee for holding the hearing while the PHH case was pending before the D.C. Circuit. He found it particularly troublesome that Ted Olson would be testifying before Congress instead of advocating in the courts. His zeal for the issue was especially peculiar, given that Gorod, another witness testifying on the panel, was an attorney who represented Mr. Green and other Congressional Democrats in filing amicus briefs in the PHH case in an attempt to intervene on behalf of the CFPB.
Republicans, in contrast, focused on the constitutional issues, namely, the CFPB’s lack of accountability either to Congress or the President and the unprecedented consolidation of legislative, judicial, and executive power in the CFPB director. In response to questioning on these issues, Ted Olson, quoting James Madison, said that such consolidation of power is “the very definition of tyranny.”
Of course, while the Republicans focused on the constitutional issues, they did not miss the opportunity to shoot a few barbs back at Democrats on the “results” achieved by the CFPB. They pointed out that the CFPB’s various accomplishments have increased the size of the unbanked population in America, diminished access to credit, and hurt smaller financial institutions who cannot afford “armies” of lawyers and compliance professionals.
Republicans on the subcommittee and three of the witnesses, Olson, White, and Prakash, seemed to agree that three steps are needed to fix the CFPB’s structure: (i) eliminate the removal only for cause provision, (ii) make the CFPB’s budget part of the appropriations process, and (iii) limit the Chevron deference afforded to the CFPB’s interpretations of consumer financial services laws.
Republicans, Olson, White, and Prakash also agreed that the President has the right and responsibility to refuse to enforce unconstitutional laws. Republicans on the subcommittee took this to mean that the President has the power, even now that the PHH panel decision has been vacated, to remove Director Cordray from office at will.
Olson, White, and Prakash also pointed out the dangerous precedent the CFPB structure would set for future agencies. All agreed at various points during the hearing that, if the CFPB’s current structure is constitutional, that would mean no limit exists on Congress’s ability to vest executive, judicial, and legislative authority in anyone of its choosing. They argued that, if the CFPB’s structure stands, there is nothing left of the separation of powers doctrine or the unitary executive.