The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is in the news, but the reason — an arcane bureaucratic dispute about the circumstances under which the president gets to fill a vacancy atop the agency — is not what we should really be talking about. Instead, we should take this opportunity to consider whether it's the government's job to protect consumers at all. Because the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress are showing quite clearly that their answer to that question is "no."
The argument over leadership at the CFPB, where director Richard Cordray stepped down after appointing a deputy director who may or may not be the rightful acting head of the agency, brings that question into sharp relief. President Trump has asked Office of Management and Budget boss Mick Mulvaney to serve as acting CFPB chief, not despite but precisely because of the fact that Mulvaney believes the agency shouldn't exist at all. Mulvaney will take the opportunity to put that belief into action, so if you're one of the corporations that the CFPB has bedeviled over the last few years, this is your lucky day.
And who are those corporations? Predatory lenders, banks who mislead and defraud their customers, payday lenders charging usurious interest rates, abusive debt collectors, and all kinds of other financial service companies that exploit consumers. When the CFPB was created as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, it was an idea at once obvious and revolutionary: an agency devoted entirely to consumer protection in the economic realm.
From the outset, Republicans were appalled.
But since they couldn't come out and say that they just don't think consumers deserve the government's protection, they focused on the agency's structure, especially the fact that the director serves a five-year term and can only be fired for cause. This, they said, represented the kind of unaccountable, even tyrannical power that would make James Madison faint dead away with horror at how twisted American government had become. "It is the single-most unaccountable and powerful agency in the history of our republic, running afoul of every tenet of separation of powers and checks and balances," thundered Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), chair of the House Financial Services Committee and the recipient of $1.5 million in campaign contributions from the financial industry.
Here's a tip: When lawmakers begin to argue based on abstract principles like the separation of powers, it's a signal that at the very least one ought to be skeptical that there might be a different agenda at work. Republicans have shown many times that they have zero interest in the principles they claim to hold. They weren't actually concerned about consular security or proper email management — they just wanted something to beat up Hillary Clinton with. They aren't actually concerned about deficits, as they always claim when there's a Democrat in the White House, and they're proving it right now with a tax bill that would add $1.5 trillion in deficits so corporations can get a tax break. Lofty ideals are simply offered as cover for some far less savory purpose.
So it is with their attacks on the CFPB, and even those who try to get more specific fail to persuade. If you look around at conservative think tanks, you won't find much discussion of the billions of dollars the agency has forced financial companies to return to victims of scams, frauds, and abuse. Instead, you'll find complaints that "the CFPB is limiting the availability of credit, and curtailing Americans' choices for investment and wealth creation." Ask yourself: Do you feel like your choices for investment and wealth creation are being curtailed? And if so, is it because banks and credit card companies are being too strictly monitored? If only we could go back to before the agency was created — let's say, 2007 — when blissfully autonomous Americans had the freedom to exercise their financial choices! It's not like anything bad happened as a result, right?
Republicans may not get their wish of simply shutting down the CFPB. As The New York Times reported a few months ago:
At one point, contemplating a high-profile run on the agency, the White House examined polling data from political bellwether states, two people briefed on the matter said. The agency, they concluded, was too popular to pick a public fight with. [The New York Times]
But even if Cordray's successor pick prevails in the short term, and even if the administration shies away from shuttering the CFPB entirely, President Trump will eventually appoint a new permanent director. And make no mistake: This person is likely to be virulently opposed to the mission of the agency he's being hired to lead. He'll then proceed to hollow it out from the inside, just as other Trump appointees are doing in areas like environmental protection where Republicans think the government shouldn't be meddling. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will become the Corporation Financial Protection Bureau.
There are plenty of other examples in which the administration is finally bringing to fruition long-held Republican hopes to screw over consumers. The Federal Communications Commission, for example, is about to undo the "net neutrality" rules put in place during the Obama administration. But we can all rely on the good will of companies like Comcast and AT&T to have our best interests at heart, right? Haven't they shown that they can be trusted?
There is a higher principle at work here, and it's one Republicans talk about a lot: They're deeply concerned about maintaining "freedom." But it's not your freedom they're worried about. It's the freedom of corporations to do pretty much whatever they want to you, with as little oversight, regulation, and fear of punishment as possible. That's what the debate over the CFPB is really about. And it looks like for now, their version of "freedom" is the one that's going to prevail.