Cordray Controversy Continues

Following President Obama’s January 4th announcement that he would install former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) using a recess appointment, a hailstorm of controversy has ensued, as lawyers, legislators and industry question the legitimacy of the move – and look for ways to undermine it.


Following the appointment, the Office of Legal Counsel stated that Congress can only prevent the president from making such appointments “by remaining continuously in session and available to receive and act on nominations,” not by holding pro forma sessions.

Senate Republicans, led by Sen. Chuck Grassley, Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, accused the president of ignoring more than 90 years of legal precedent in making the recess appointments while the Senate remained in pro forma session. “The Justice Department and the White House owe it to the American people to provide a clear understanding of the process that transpired and the rationale it used to circumvent the checks and balances promised by the Constitution,” Grassley said. “Overturning 90 years of historical precedent is a major shift in policy that should not be done in a legal opinion made behind closed doors hidden from public scrutiny.” The letter was signed by Senate Judiciary Committee members Grassley, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK).

On January 12, the Department of Justice issued a memo arguing that pro forma sessions held every third day in the Senate do not constitute a functioning body that can render advice and consent on the president’s nominees. It said the president acted consistently under the law by making the appointments. “Although the Senate will have held pro forma sessions regularly from January 3 to January 23, in our judgment, those sessions do not interrupt the intrasession recess in a manner that would preclude the president from determining that the Senate remains unavailable throughout to ‘receive communications from the president or participate as a body in making appointments,’” Virginia Seitz, assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel, wrote in the memo dated Jan. 6.


On the legislative front, there are two issues: the legislation that created Dodd-Frank, and the countless bills that will soon be introduced in response to the president’s recess appointment.

The conventional wisdom in both industry and government circles has been that the CFPB’s authority will be limited until it has a director, and that once it has a director, it will assume its full powers. Not quite. As Dodd-Frank was drafted, Section 1066 reserves many of the bureau’s powers for the Secretary of the Treasury “until the Director of the Bureau is confirmed by the Senate.” As Cordray was appointed through a recess appointment, rather than the Senate confirmation process, he will still have certain constraints on his authority. Specifically, the section transfers consumer financial protection functions of several other federal agencies to the CFPB Director.

In the absence of a Senate-confirmed director, those powers, which include the authority to regulate non-banks, should, according to statute, remain with the Secretary of the Treasury. Despite this, the CFPB has announced that it has launched its non-bank supervision program. Should that supervision become enforcement, it remains to be seen whether enforcement actions could withstand a court challenge.

Where the current legislation has raised questions, two freshman House Republicans are making moves to answer them.

On January 10, Rep. Diane Black (R-TN) introduced a House resolution “Disapproving of the President's appointment of four officers or employees of the United States during a period when no recess of the Congress for a period of more than three days was authorized by concurrent resolution and expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that those appointments were made in violation of the Constitution.” The resolution has 70 Republican co-sponsors.

On January 13, Rep. Jeff Landry (R-LA) introduced the Executive Appointment Reform Act (EARA), which would eliminate loopholes in the U.S. Code that allow for the payment of certain recess appointed individuals and also place limitations on an appointee’s ability to provide voluntary or gratuitous service. Additionally, the legislation would prevent all regulations hailing from the CFPB from becoming final until the director has been confirmed by the Senate. The bill has 22 Republican co-sponsors.


While few expected industry to enter the fray, a few major players have spoken out. 
Citigroup said that it does not view the move as a recess appointment and said it expects a court challenge. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a vocal critic of the bureau, has not ruled out a lawsuit, but said Friday, “We are not going to sue today.”

Cordray has said that he is working closely with industry leaders and lobbyists to ensure that their concerns are heard. “What I want to say to business is: They should embrace the bureau,” he said. “Not only are we going to protect consumers, but we are going to support the honest and responsible businesses in the financial marketplace” who were undercut by companies that did not “adhere to the same standards.”

The White House has held firm that the move was constitutional. “The Senate has effectively been in recess for weeks, and is expected to remain in recess for weeks,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in a statement. “Gimmicks do not override the president’s constitutional authority to make appointments to keep the government running,” he said.

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