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.

Reducing Enforcement at The CFPB

Mick Mulvaney’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has released a Request for Information Regarding Bureau Enforcement Activities (available on the upper right corner of this page), its third in a series of RFIs that seek to dramatically restrict the Bureau’s activities. The Bureau seeks

feedback on all aspects of its enforcement processes, including but not limited to:

1. Communication between the Bureau and the subjects of investigations, including the timing and frequency of those communications, and information provided by the Bureau on the status of its investigation;

2. The length of Bureau investigations;

3. The Bureau’s Notice and Opportunity to Respond and Advise process, including:

a. CFPB Bulletin 2011–04, Notice and Opportunity to Respond and Advise (NORA), issued November 7, 2011 (updated January 18, 2012) and available at http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/2012/01/
Bulletin10.pdf, including whether invocation of the NORA process should be mandatory rather than discretionary;and

b. The information contained in the letters that the Bureau may send to subjects of potential enforcement actions pursuant to the NORA process, as exemplified by the sample letter available at http://www.consumerfinance.gov/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/NORA-Letter1.pdf;

4. Whether the Bureau should afford subjects of potential enforcement actions the right to make an in-person presentation to Bureau personnel prior to the Bureau determining whether it should initiate legal proceedings;

5. The calculation of civil money penalties, consistent with the penalty amounts and mitigating factors set out in 12 U.S.C. 5565(c), including whether the Bureau should adopt a civil money penalty matrix, and, if it does adopt such a matrix, what that matrix should include;

6. The standard provisions in Bureau consent orders, including conduct, compliance, monetary relief, and administrative provisions; and

7. The manner and extent to which the Bureau can and should coordinate its enforcement activity with other Federal and/or State agencies that may  have overlapping jurisdiction. (83 F.R. 6000) (Feb. 12, 2018)

The not-so-subtext of this RFI is that Mulvaney is seeking to hamstring the Bureau’s enforcement authority which Republicans have found to be too zealous since the Bureau was first started up.

Comments are due April 13, 2018, so get crackin’.

Ditching the CFPB’s System of Adjudication

photo by Mike Licht

Mick Mulvaney is continuing his work of dismantling the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as we have known it. His latest is the issuance of a Request for Information Regarding Bureau Rules of Practice for Adjudication Proceedings.

Section 1053 of the Act authorizes the Bureau to conduct administrative adjudications. The Bureau in the past has brought cases in the administrative setting in accordance with applicable law. The Bureau understands, however, that the administrative adjudication process can result in undue burdens, impacts, or costs on the parties subject to these proceedings. Members of the public are likely to have useful information and perspectives on the benefits and impacts of the Bureau’s use of administrative adjudications, as well as existing administrative adjudication processes and the Rules. The Bureau is especially interested in receiving suggestions for whether it should be availing itself of the administrative adjudication process, and if so how its processes and Rules could be updated, streamlined, or revised to better achieve the Bureau’s statutory objectives; to minimize burdens, impacts, or costs on parties subject to these proceedings; to align the Bureau’s administrative adjudication Rules more closely with those of other agencies; and to better provide fair and efficient process to individuals and entities involved in the adjudication process, including ensuring that they have a full and fair opportunity to present evidence and arguments relevant to the proceeding. (83 F.R. 5055-56, Feb. 5, 2018)

The Bureau requests that comments include, first and foremost, “Specific discussion of the positive and negative aspects of the Bureau’s administrative adjudication processes, including whether a policy of proceeding in Federal court in all instances would be preferable.” (83 F.R. 5056)

This Request for Information is the second of a series. The first RFI addressed Civil Investigative Demands and Associated Processes. I will blog about the third one, the Request for Information Regarding Bureau Enforcement Processes, at a later date.

Mulvaney appears to be using these RFIs to provide the consumer financial services industry with an opportunity to provide broad direction to the Bureau as to what changes they would like to see, now that pro-consumer Director Cordray has stepped down. This would be consistent with this RFI’s focus on minimizing “burdens, impacts, or costs on parties subject to these proceedings . . .”

Comments are due April 6, 2018 so get crackin’.

The “Humbled” Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

photo by Lilla Frerichs

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is changing directions in a big way under the leadership of Mick Mulvaney as seen in its Strategic Plan for FY 2018-2022. In his opening message to the Plan, Mulvaney writes that the Plan

presents an opportunity to explain to the public how the Bureau intends to fulfill its statutory duties consistent with the strategic vision of its new leadership. In reviewing the draft Strategic Plan released by the Bureau in October 2017, it became clear to me that the Bureau needed a more coherent strategic direction. If there is one way to summarize the strategic changes occurring at the Bureau, it is this: we have committed to fulfill the Bureau’s statutory responsibilities, but go no further. Indeed, this should be an ironclad promise for any federal agency; pushing the envelope in pursuit of other objectives ignores the will of the American people, as established in law by their representatives in Congress and the White House. Pushing the envelope also risks trampling upon the liberties of our citizens, or interfering with the sovereignty or autonomy of the states or Indian tribes. I have resolved that this will not happen at the Bureau.

So how do we refocus the Bureau’s efforts to better protect consumers? How do we succinctly define the Bureau’s unique mission, goals, and objectives? Fortunately, the necessary tools are already set forth in statute. We have drawn the strategic plan’s mission statement directly from Sections 1011 and 1013 of the Dodd-Frank Act: “to regulate the offering and provision of consumer financial products or services under the Federal consumer financial laws” and “to educate and empower consumers to make better informed financial decisions.” We have similarly drawn the strategic plan’s first two strategic goals and its five strategic objectives from Section 1021 of the Dodd-Frank Act. By hewing to the statute, this Strategic Plan provides the Bureau a ready roadmap, a touchstone with a fixed meaning that should serve as a bulwark against the misuse of our unparalleled powers. Just as important, it provides clarity and certainty to market participants. (2)

The subtext of this change in direction is not that “sub” at all. The Trump Administration wants to rein in the Bureau after it aggressively pursued financial services companies for violating a broad range of consumer protection statutes.

The Plan says that the Bureau will now act “with humility and moderation.” What that means is that the it will now be cutting financial services firms a lot of slack. Let’s see how a humbled Bureau works out for consumers.

The Fate of CFPB’s Civil Investigative Demands

 

Mick Mulvaney’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a Request for Information Regarding Bureau Civil Investigative Demands and Associated Processes:

The Bureau is using this request for information to seek public input regarding the exercise of its authority to issue CIDs, including from entities who have received one or more CIDs from the Bureau, or members of the bar who represent these entities.

The issuance of CIDs is an essential tool for fulfilling the Bureau’s statutory mission of enforcing Federal consumer financial law. The Bureau issues CIDs in accordance with the law and in furtherance of its investigatory objectives. The Bureau understands, however, that responding to a CID can impose burdens on the recipients. Entities who have received one or more CIDs, members of the bar who represent these entities, and members of the public are likely to have useful information and perspectives on the benefits and burdens of the Bureau’s existing processes related to CIDs. The Bureau is especially interested in better understanding how its processes related to CIDs may be updated, streamlined, or revised to better achieve the Bureau’s statutory and regulatory objectives, while minimizing burdens, consistent with applicable law, and how to align the Bureau’s CID processes with those of other agencies with similar authorities. Interested parties may also be well-positioned to identify those parts of the Bureau’s processes related to CIDs that are most in need of improvement, and, thus, assist the Bureau in prioritizing and properly tailoring its review process. In short, engaging CID recipients, potential CID recipients, and the public in an open, transparent process will help inform the Bureau’s review of its processes related to CIDs. (83 F.R. 3686 (Jan. 26, 2018))

There is a lot of subtext in this request, of course, because Mulvaney is set on hamstringing the Bureau which he has described as a “sick, sad” joke. A review of CIDs is likely to lead to a decrease in enforcement activity for the financial services companies regulated by the CFPB.

Be that as it may, the Bureau is seeking comments on “Specific suggestions regarding any potential updates or modifications to the Bureau’s practices regarding the formulation, issuance, or modification of CIDs consistent with the Bureau’s regulatory and statutory objectives, including, in as much detail as possible, the potential update or modification, supporting data or other information such as cost information or information concerning alignment with the processes of other agencies with similar authorities . . .” (Id.)

Comments are due by March 27, 2018.

Trump Wins Round Two At CFPB

image by Slr722x

Bloomberg Law quoted me in Court Says Mulvaney Can Lead CFPB, but Legal Fight Continues. It opens,

The court battle over the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s top leadership has shifted in the Trump administration’s favor, but continued litigation could test its ability to revamp the agency.

Judge Timothy J. Kelly yesterday denied deputy director Laura English’s bid for an order that would have barred Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney from serving as acting CFPB director, setting up what many expect to be an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Although plenty of questions lie ahead, perhaps the biggest is whether and to what extent ongoing uncertainty raised by the case impacts the administration’s effort to revamp consumer protection regulation at the CFPB.

“This is clearly a win for the administration, but there’s still so much uncertainty,” David Reiss, professor of law at Brooklyn Law School in Brooklyn, N.Y, told Bloomberg Law in a phone interview. “What we’ll see for the next few months is whether that uncertainty makes it harder for Mulvaney to turn the ship.”

Kelly’s 46-page decision, which several attorneys privately described as careful and thorough, is the second such setback for English, who previously lost a bid for a temporary restraining order. Even so, hazards lie ahead for the administration.

University of Michigan Law School Professor Nina Mendelson said an eventual ruling on the merits against Mulvaney could call into question any actions based on authority he now claims, such as final regulations, settlements, or other matters.

“A court could invalidate all of those actions,” Mendelson said on a call hosted by consumer advocates. Mendelson, an expert on administrative law, said she’s taken an independent stance on the case.

New York Challenge

Kelly’s Jan. 10 ruling isn’t the last word, according to Brianne Gorod, an attorney with the Constitutional Accountability Center who also joined the call. “The legal fight here is far from over,” she said.

The decision also may boost the stakes for a separate challenge to Mulvaney in federal court in New York. There, the Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union also seeks a court order declaring that English, not Mulvaney, is the CFPB’s rightful acting director. The credit union says the appointment of Mulvaney has thrown the credit union into “regulatory chaos,” because it can’t identify the lawful director of the CFPB.

BTW, I am a signatory on an amicus brief filed in the Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union case.