by Jeff Sovern
I finally finished listening to the House Financial Service's Committee's April 5 hearing: a more than five-hour long interrogation of CFPB Director Richard Cordray. I am torn between thinking every American should listen to some of it--to see how awful some members of Congress are--and thinking no one should have to listen to it--because no one should have to witness a decent person being treated in such a fashion.
Every time I listen to one of these hearings (I've skipped some), I marvel at Richard Cordray's patience. He would have been an excellent preschool teacher at a school for oppositional children, and I bet he's a terrific parent. The abuse he calmly endured was unjustified. It's not abusive in my opinion that the chairman, Jeb Hensarling, opened by calling for his firing, and it is certainly appropriate to question a witness in a hostile fashion when there are legitimate grounds for doing so. But that's not what this was. Some members challenged the integrity of the CFPB employees and criticized every trivial thing they could identify and some that may have been imaginary (see the next sentence). As far as I could tell, the only time Director Cordray became exasperated was when a member asked if a particular subordinate had left the CFPB shortly before his pension vested because he was under investigation; Director Cordray explained that the employee's family circumstances had changed and that he was not aware of any such investigation.
One notable thing about the Director's testimony is that he was able to take seriously in a non-defensive way seemingly legitimate concerns by his critics. For example, when one questioner asked if he was aware of insider trading by CFPB staff, Mr. Cordray sounded alarmed as he said he was not but wanted to hear more about what had prompted the line of questioning. Similarly, he pledged to accelerate one required rule-making that the Bureau had not completed and that a member appeared to be asking about as a means of criticizing the Director.
Another way the incivility manifested was that certain members asked questions that implied the CFPB was not acting properly (I'm not going to quote this correctly, but one example was a question asking if money earmarked for victims was given to a law firm) and then not allow the Director time to respond. Sometimes Mr. Cordray would talk over the member (in the case of the question I just alluded to, Mr. Cordray used that technique to say that the money had been given to victims of the law firm). Sometimes he started to answer, only to have the member say "reclaiming my time" (Congress's way of saying "shut up"). On one or two occasions, when Mr. Cordray continued speaking, the chairman gaveled him to silence to allow the interrogator to badger him some more. Occasionally, supportive members of the committee yielded their time to the Director so he could answer questions posed by others that he was not permitted to answer; on at least one such occasion, his questioner had already left the room, apparently doing everything she could to avoid hearing answers to her questions. I don't want to make this discussion partisan, and so I am not going to refer to political parties, but clearly Senator Warren is not the only consumer advocate that certain members of Congress want to silence.
The Bureau surely isn't perfect; no human institution (or human, for that matter) is. No doubt a new institution is going to make even more mistakes because it hasn't had time to learn what works and what doesn't. The members of Congress are supposed to try to help identify those mistakes and make sure they are corrected. And some of that happened during the hearing. But all too often, that isn't what this was. Too frequently, this wasn't a good faith exercise in making something new work better; this was an attempt to play "gotcha" and to create the appearance of a justifiable firing for cause of a man who has worked hard and exceedingly well to start an institution that has already done much good. Not only does the heroic Richard Cordray deserve better, but so does our country. I know "politics ain't beanbag." But it shouldn't be shameful either.