Treasury’s Trojan Horse for The CFPB

The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo

The Hill posted my latest column, Americans Are Better off with Consumer Protection in Place. It opens,

This month, the Treasury Department issued a report to President Trump in response to his executive order on regulation of the U.S. financial system. While the report does not seek to do as much damage to consumer protection as the House’s Financial Choice Act, it proposes a dramatic weakening of the federal government’s role in the consumer financial services market. In particular, the report advocates that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s mandate be radically constrained.

Republicans have been seeking to weaken the CFPB since it was created as part of the Dodd-Frank Act. The bureau took over responsibility for consumer protection regulation from seven federal agencies. Republicans have been far more antagonistic to the bureau than many of the lenders it regulates. Lenders have seen the value in consolidating much of their regulatory compliance into one agency.

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United States v. CFPB

photo by AgnosticPreachersKid

United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse

The Trump Administration has filed an amicus brief in PHH Corp. v. CFPB. The case is schedule for an en banc hearing in May. The filing is particularly newsworthy because the Trump Administration is siding with PHH, a mortgage lender, against the CFPB, a federal agency. The Trump Administration summarizes its position as follows:

In 2010, Congress created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) as part of the Dodd-Frank Act, giving the CFPB authority to enforce U.S. consumer-protection laws that had previously been administered by seven different government agencies, as well as new provisions added by Dodd-Frank itself. See 12 U.S.C. § 5581(b). The CFPB is headed by a single Director who is appointed by the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate, for a term of five years, id. § 5491(b), (c)(1), and who may be removed by the President only for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office,” id. § 5491(c)(3).

The panel in this case held that this “for cause” removal provision violates the constitutional separation of powers. Op. 9-10. The panel explained—and neither party disputes—that, as a general matter, the President has “Article II authority to supervise, direct, and remove at will subordinate [principal] officers in the Executive Branch” in order to exercise his vested power and duty to faithfully execute the laws. Op. 4. The panel recognized as well that Humphrey’s Executor v. United States, 295 U.S. 602, 629 (1935), established an exception to that rule, holding that Congress may “forbid [the] removal except for cause” of members of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)—a holding that has been understood to cover members of other multi-member regulatory commissions that share certain features and functions with the FTC. Op. 4.

The principal constitutional question in this case is whether the exception to the President’s removal authority recognized in Humphrey’s Executor should be extended by this Court beyond multi-member regulatory commissions to an agency headed by a single Director. While we do not agree with all of the reasoning in the panel’s opinion, the United States agrees with the panel’s conclusion that single-headed agencies are meaningfully different from the type of multi-member regulatory commission addressed in Humphrey’s Executor.

The Supreme Court’s analysis in Humphrey’s Executor was premised on the nature of the FTC as a continuing deliberative body, composed of several members with staggered terms to maintain institutional expertise and promote a measure of stability that would not be immediately undermined by political vicissitudes. A single-headed agency, of course, lacks those critical structural attributes that have been thought to justify “independent” status for multi-member regulatory commissions. Moreover, because a single agency head is unchecked by the constraints of group decision-making among members appointed by different Presidents, there is a greater risk that an “independent” agency headed by a single person will engage in extreme departures from the President’s executive policy. And as the panel recognized, while multi-member regulatory commissions sharing the characteristics of the FTC discussed in Humphrey’s Executor have existed for over a century, limitations on the President’s authority to remove a single agency head are a recent development to which the Executive Branch has consistently objected.

We therefore urge the Court to decline to extend the exception recognized in Humphrey’s Executor in this case. (1-2)

This is of course an obscure argument about administrative law jurisprudence, but it also has serious real world consequences. I have previously argued that the panel reached the wrong result in this case and I think that the en banc Court will overturn it.

This amicus brief does not add too much to the reasoning in Judge Kavanaugh’s majority opinion in PHH v. CFPB, although it does flesh out one important argument that it made. The brief provides some support for the position that multi-member commissions are better suited to run independent agencies than single directors. But while it makes the case that single director agencies may not be the best choice for agency design, it does not make the case that it is an unconstitutional one.

 

Gorsuch and the CFPB

photo provided byUnited States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

Judge Gorsuch

Bankrate.com quoted me in Supreme Court Pick Could Spell Trouble for the CFPB. It opens,

President Donald Trump’s first Supreme Court pick has been identified as the “most natural successor” to the late Justice Antonin Scalia, whom he would replace.

Neil Gorsuch, 49, a judge on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, is said to share many of Scalia’s beliefs and his judicial philosophy. That could tip the high court back toward the 5-4 conservative split it held during controversial cases prior to Scalia’s death, although Justice Anthony Kennedy will remain a liberal swing vote on certain social issues before the court.

Gorsuch’s big judicial decisions have favored religious freedom over government regulation and state’s rights over the power of the federal government.

But how might that impact consumers or their wallets directly?

“I think with a judge like Gorsuch, you can see there probably will be a tendency in that direction to dissuade innovation,” says David Reiss, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School and the academic program director for the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship.

That could mean the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, whose unique management structure a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit last fall called unconstitutional, could face an obstacle on the bench should the legal fight over its construction ever reach the Supreme Court.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who wrote the majority opinion for the D.C. circuit panel, said because this independent agency is headed by a director whom the president cannot fire at will – and not, say, a set of commissioners like other agencies within the government – it is a threat to individual liberty.

“In short, when measured in terms of unilateral power, the director of the CFPB is the single most powerful official in the entire U.S. government, other than the president,” Kavanaugh wrote. “In essence, the director is the president of consumer finance.”

How Gorsuch May Rule

Supporters of the bureau are trying to get a hearing before the full U.S. Court of Appeals, but the issue could well wind up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court – that is if Congress doesn’t take action first.

Legal scholars say should Gorsuch win Senate confirmation he is unlikely to look favorably on the bureau’s structure.

Indeed, Gorsuch is likely to “echo the views of Judge Kavanaugh,” Melissa Malpass, senior legal editor for consumer regulatory finance at Thompson Reuters Practical Law, said in an email.

“Judge Gorsuch, through recent decisions, has expressed his disfavor with permitting government agencies to not only determine what the law is, but also to interpret and re-interpret the law as they see fit, often based on the political climate,” Malpass says.

If the Supreme Court were to uphold the Kavanaugh ruling, it “may, in effect, destroy the CFPB as we know it, and that will have an effect on consumers,” Reiss says.

Not everyone, though, thinks restructuring the CFPB as a commission-led agency like the Federal Communications Commission, for example, would be bad for consumers.

Gorsuch’s Path to the High Court

Democrats, still stung over the Senate’s refusal to consider Merrick Garland, then-President Barack Obama’s pick to succeed Scalia, could try to block Gorsuch’s nomination. Under current Senate rules, at least eight Democrats will need to cross the aisle to prevent a filibuster of the appointment.

Gorsuch, who was confirmed for his current post in 2006 by Senate voice vote, has won widespread acclaim in Republican circles. He also received a vote of confidence from a former Obama administration official.

“I think the Democrats are going to ask questions to determine if the nominee is outside what they call the political mainstream,” Reiss says. “We know this battle will be a brutal one, almost definitely because of the treatment of Merrick Garland’s nomination under the Obama administration.”

Does Housing Finance Reform Still Matter?

Ed DeMarco and Michael Bright

Ed DeMarco and Michael Bright

The Milken Institute’s Michael Bright and Ed DeMarco have posted a white paper, Why Housing Reform Still Matters. Bright was the principal author of the Corker-Warner Fannie/Freddie reform bill and DeMarco is the former Acting Director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency. In short, they know housing finance. They write,

The 2008 financial crisis left a lot of challenges in its wake. The events of that year led to years of stagnant growth, a painful process of global deleveraging, and the emergence of new banking regulatory regimes across the globe.

But at the epicenter of the crisis was the American housing market. And while America’s housing finance system was fundamental to the financial crisis and the Great Recession, reform efforts have not altered America’s mortgage market structure or housing access paradigms in a material way.

This work must get done. Eventually, legislators will have to resolve their differences to chart a modernized course for housing in our country. Reflecting upon the progress made and the failures endured in this effort since 2008, we have set ourselves to the task of outlining a framework meant to advance the public debate and help lawmakers create an achievable plan. Through a series of upcoming papers, our goal will be to not just foster debate but to push that debate toward resolution.

Before setting forth solutions, however, it is important to frame the issues and state why we should do this in the first place. In light of the growing chorus urging surrender and going back to the failed model of the past, our objective in this paper is to remind policymakers why housing finance reform is needed and help distinguish aspects of the current system that are worth preserving from those that should be scrapped. (1)

I agree with a lot of what they have to say.  First, we should not go back to “the failed model of the past,” and it amazes me that that idea has any traction at all. I guess political memories are as short as people say they are.

Second, “until Congress acts, the FHFA is stuck in its role of regulator and conservator.” (3) They argue that it is wrong to allow one individual, the FHFA Director, to dramatically reform the housing finance system on his own. This is true, even if he is doing a pretty good job, as current Director Watt is.

Third, I agree that any reform plan must ensure that the mortgage-backed securities market remain liquid; credit remains available in all submarkets markets; competition is beneficial in the secondary mortgage market.

Finally, I agree with many of the goals of their reform agenda: reducing the likelihood of taxpayer bailouts of private actors; finding a consensus on access to credit; increasing the role of private capital in the mortgage market; increasing transparency in order to decrease rent-seeking behavior by market actors; and aligning incentives throughout the mortgage markets.

So where is my criticism? I think it is just that the paper is at such a high level of generality that it is hard to find much to disagree about.  Who wouldn’t want a consensus on housing affordability and access to credit? But isn’t it more likely that Democrats and Republicans will be very far apart on this issue no matter how long they discuss it?

The authors promise that a detailed proposal is forthcoming, so my criticism may soon be moot. But I fear that Congress is no closer to finding common ground on housing finance reform than they have been for the better part of the last decade. The authors’ optimism that consensus can be reached is not yet warranted, I think. Housing reform may not matter because the FHFA may just implement a new regime before Congress gets it act together.

Reiss on Watt Confirmation

Law360 interviewed me about the Senate confirmation of Mel Watt as the Director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency in Fannie, Freddie’s Footprint Could Grow Under New FHFA Head. The article reads in part,

The U.S. mortgage industry is in for a sea change as Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., takes the helm of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, experts say, predicting Watt will seek to expand Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, veering sharply from his predecessor’s plans but lining up more closely with President Barack Obama’s.

The confirmation came Tuesday in a 57-41 vote after months of delay ended by Senate Democrats’ implementation of the so-called “nuclear option” eliminating the filibuster of presidential nominees. Senate Republicans had expressed concern about the choice of a politician like Watt — as opposed to an academic or economist — to head the agency.

Members of the real estate finance community are also divided about whether Watt’s confirmation will have a positive or negative impact on the industry, but most agree that a major change is ahead.

“I think Watt, as director, could end up having a very big impact both in terms of reversing some changes that have been implemented, and also taking the agency in a very different direction,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School.

Since 2009, interim FHFA head Ed DeMarco has made an effort to shrink the footprint of the regulator and its government-sponsored enterprises, Fannie and Freddie, in the U.S. residential mortgage market.

DeMarco faced pushback in these efforts from industry groups and lawmakers, causing him to backpedal a bit in November when the FHFA announced that it would hold off on reducing the size of mortgages that Fannie and Freddie can guarantee for at least the first half of next year.

Obama also did not share DeMarco’s ideology, but experts believe Watt’s plans for the GSEs are much more in line with those of the president. He appears cautious about allowing Fannie and Freddie to back away from the market entirely and may in fact favor policies that will increase the GSEs’ role in the mortgage market.

“My guess is that Watt will further enmesh Fannie and Freddie in the operations of the mortgage markets, whereas DeMarco was actually shrinking their footprint,” Reiss said.

*     *     *

The difference between the short-term and long-term impacts of Watt’s expected actions will be significant, experts say.

DeMarco’s moves made short-term waves, but supporters believed the aim was long-term equilibrium and an eventual balance of public and private capital in the mortgage market. Watt may have more potential for positive short-term results, but there will still be a question as to whether this will translate into a stable market for the next generation, Reiss said.

“Often when people are talking about government intervention, they want help for problems now, but they’re also setting up the rules of the game for once the crisis has passed,” he said.