Taking Apart The CFPB, Bit by Bit

graphic by Matt Shirk

Mick Mulvaney’s Message in the CFPB’s latest Semi-Annual Report is crystal clear regarding his plans for the Bureau:

As has been evident since the enactment of the Dodd-Frank Act, the Bureau is far too powerful, and with precious little oversight of its activities. Per the statute, in the normal course the Bureau’s Director simultaneously serves in three roles: as a one-man legislature empowered to write rules to bind parties in new ways; as an executive officer subject to limited control by the President; and as an appellate judge presiding over the Bureau’s in-house court-like adjudications. In Federalist No. 47, James Madison famously wrote that “[t]he accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands … may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” Constitutional separation of powers and related checks and balances protect us from government overreach. And while Congress may not have transgressed any constraints established by the Supreme Court, the structure and powers of this agency are not something the Founders and Framers would recognize. By structuring the Bureau the way it has, Congress established an agency primed to ignore due process and abandon the rule of law in favor of bureaucratic fiat and administrative absolutism.

The best that any Bureau Director can do on his own is to fulfill his responsibilities with humility and prudence, and to temper his decisions with the knowledge that the power he wields could all too easily be used to harm consumers, destroy businesses, or arbitrarily remake American financial markets. But all human beings are imperfect, and history shows that the temptation of power is strong. Our laws should be written to restrain that human weakness, not empower it.

I have no doubt that many Members of Congress disagree with my actions as the Acting Director of the Bureau, just as many Members disagreed with the actions of my predecessor. Such continued frustration with the Bureau’s lack of accountability to any representative branch of government should be a warning sign that a lapse in democratic structure and republican principles has occurred. This cycle will repeat ad infinitum unless Congress acts to make it accountable to the American people.

Accordingly, I request that Congress make four changes to the law to establish meaningful accountability for the Bureau :

1. Fund the Bureau through Congressional appropriations;

2. Require legislative approval of major Bureau rules;

3. Ensure that the Director answers to the President in the exercise of executive authority; and

4. Create an independent Inspector General for the Bureau. (2-3)

Mulvaney gets points for speaking clearly, but a lot of what he says is wrong and at odds with how the federal government has operated for nearly one hundred years. He is wrong in stating that the CFPB Director acts without judicial oversight. The Director’s decisions are appealable and his predecessor’s have, in fact, been overturned. And his call to a return to the federal government of the type recognizable to the Framers has a hollow ring since at least 1935 when the Supreme Court decided Humphrey’s Executor v. United States.

I would think that it should go without saying that the federal government has grown exponentially since its founding in the 18th century. The Supreme Court has acknowledged as much in Humphrey’s Executor which held that Congress could create independent agencies.  Independent agencies are now fundamental to the operation of the federal government.

Mulvaney and others are seeking to chip away at the legitimacy of the modern administrative state. That is certainly their prerogative. But they should not ignore the history of the last hundred years and skip all the way back to 18th century if they want their arguments to sound like anything more than a bit of sophistry.

Hockett on Postliberal Finance

Bob Hockett has posted Preliberal Autonomy and Postliberal Finance to SSRN. The abstract reads,

Even American Founders whose views diverged as dramatically as those of Jefferson and Hamilton shared a view of finance and of enterprise that one might call “productive republican.” Pursuant to this vision, financial and other forms of market activity are instrumentally rather than intrinsically good — and for that very reason are of interest to the public qua public rather than to the public qua aggregate of “private” individuals. Citizens are best left free to engage in financial and other market activities, per this understanding, only insofar as these are consistent with sustainable collective republic-making. And the republic — the res publica or “thing of the public” — for its part devotes many of its energies to the task of fostering and maintaining a materially independent republican citizenry. State and citizen are thus mutually constituting and mutually supporting, per this vision, and finance is important primarily in its capacity to nurture that symbiosis.

The productive republican view of finance can be illuminatingly contrasted with another view of more recent vintage, which one might call “liberal.” The liberal view takes market activity to be an intrinsic good, if not indeed a matter of inherent political-cum-moral right. Markets on this view are as it were natural social outgrowths of and aggregated counterparts to inherently “free” individual choices — choices that all of us, in both our individual and our collective capacities, are ethically bound to respect insofar as they don’t impose illegitimate costs upon others. So-called “public” interventions in “private” markets are accordingly fit subjects of suspicion and scrutiny per the liberal view. They are presumptively problematic unless and until proven otherwise, while “proof otherwise” for its part typically takes the form of proof that the intervention protects putatively pre-political freedom itself.

I claim in this article, a solicited symposium contribution, that American financial law, and economic law more generally, were once highly productive-republican in character, and that many financial, economic and, in consequence, political dysfunctions with which we have become familiar in recent decades stem from those laws’ having become steadily more liberal in character over time. I also argue that a number of essays, articles, and monographs published over the last twenty years or so under the rubrics of “banking the poor,” “alternative banking,” or “democratized finance” are, in effect if not self-conscious intention, attempts at partial recovery of the productive republican tradition — at least in the realm of finance. They are in this sense what might be called “post-liberal” in sensibility, if not quite in self-conscious aim. Their project can accordingly be aided, I aim to show, by affording them a form of reflective project-consciousness. That consciousness, however, once attained, will not be satisfied with post-liberal finance alone. It will demand a post-liberal economics.

This symposium piece is particularly compelling because it includes a personal story about Bob’s involvement with a “homeless kibbutz.” No spoilers, so you’ll have to read it yourself.