Elizabeth Warren won a round, but can't win the fightMay 26, 2011: 10:19 AM ET
How is it possible that a straight-talking grandmother from the Midwest can't win over Congress to run an agency created to help consumers with their finances?
FORTUNE -- Which one of his constituents was Representative Patrick McHenry (R-NC) acting in the interests of when he attacked Elizabeth Warren on Tuesday? Was it the broke homeowner in the Blue Ridge Mountains? Or the laid off textile worker in Rutherford County? Somehow I doubt he was thinking of either.
If his district included Charlotte—which likes to think of itself as a major financial center—I might have understood why he chose to give Warren grief over some irrelevant details about some discussion that she may or may not have had six months ago. If he had Charlotte in his purview, in other words, he would be acting as the mouthpiece of a bunch of well-heeled bankers who don't want any more regulation than they already have to deal with. But no, McHenry seems to represent normal folk, and not bankers. Or at least he's supposed to.
Has there ever been a more nonpartisan-sounding agency than the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau? It's remarkable, if you think of it, how quickly the Republican Party has gone back to its old ways, stonewalling and fighting any efforts to shackle big money. Regulations stifle innovation, they howl. Regulations just make government bigger, they cry. Give us a break, people. Is your memory that short? Seriously?
I've written about Elizabeth Warren before. I'm a fan, obviously. But I've also written about JPMorgan Chase (JPM) CEO Jamie Dimon. I am a documented fan of his as well. While these two make nice in public, they do not go camping together. Dimon wants fewer regulations, obviously, because he thinks it hampers the ability of American banks to compete with their global counterparts. I understand that argument. Warren thinks we should stop banks from duping people into doing stupid things like taking out credit card debt with ballooning interest payments or buying adjustable rate mortgages because they think the low rates will last forever. I understand that argument more. I'm with the majority on this one: Warren wins, Dimon loses.
I think my favorite part of Republican opposition to Warren's efforts is that she is trying to create a "super class of administrative elites" to run the CFPB. You know the powder keg is running dry when they go to the tried-and-true use of elite, but this one is pretty laughable. In financial services, you are not elite if you work on the regulatory side of things. Those are the people you are regulating. Republican Congressman Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) has even warned that the director of the Bureau might have "carte blanche" to do whatever he or she wants to do. I presume he is thinking of things like lending $80 billion secretly to self-righteous Wall Street banks like Goldman Sachs (GS). Or maybe not. I bet you a dollar that Bachus didn't even know about those loans, so busy he and his colleagues have been trying to hamstring an agency with a relatively minuscule budget that's trying to make financial services just a little less opaque.
I am of two minds about the bubble. Part of me is angry at the people that didn't read the fine print or that bought houses they couldn't afford, and ended up shafting the rest of us with their bad debt in the end. (The government bought it, which means it's now yours and mine.) The other part of me wonders why credit card companies can't be more decent about the way they conduct their business, and why the mortgage industry has no compunction about selling someone down the river with some stupid ARM product. The CFPB might go a long way to helping out in both regards.
Can Obama finally give Warren the job she deserves without a controversial recess appointment? I doubt it. It's hard to think of a more powerful lightning rod than this grandmother from the Midwest. Which is unbelievable. (She won a Betty Crocker homemaker contest in high school, for God's sake.) Congress relentlessly applauds Benjamin Netanyahu for telling them he's totally uninterested in solving one of the world's greatest problems, and they decide to rake Warren over the coals for the outrage of offering to help us become a more decent society?
People have said Elizabeth Warren came across as self-righteous Tuesday, especially when she told Congress that they were interfering with her schedule. Fair enough. Were I one of her handlers, I might be telling her to tone it down a little right about now. On the other hand, such a forthright mien is rare indeed in Washington. She is, without a doubt, the new straight-talk express. But she might be too radioactive to ever make this Bureau a success. Maybe the right thing for her to do here is step aside. Not because she wouldn't be good at the job, but because Republicans seem so determined to make her fail that her mere presence undermines the Bureau's effectiveness. Maybe she should run for Senate.
McHenry? The man may have just lost his next election for so obviously being in the pocket of someone other than the people he is supposed to represent. Good luck getting a new job when that happens, McHenry. Maybe you can move to Charlotte and get a job at a bank.