While we were away on the holiday break, President Obama used his constitutional authority to appoint Richard Cordray as the director of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Senate Republicans — who not only promised not to confirm Cordray, but also promised not to confirm anyone to the position — expressed the requisite outrage.
There are certainly some questions about the degree to which the Senate’s pro forma sessions permitted (or did not permit) President Obama to exercise his interim appointment authority. But there’s an even bigger question, here.
Why did he have to resort to an interim appointment?
Republicans hated the idea of the CFPB from the start. They didn’t want the agency to exist. And if it had to exist, they wanted it to be neutered. Hence their push for a board instead of a single director. The appointment of someone like Cordray who actually wanted the Bureau to do its job well meant that payroll lenders, credit card companies, and the like might fall under actual, competent regulation.
In other words, Republicans wanted the government to fail at doing its job. Therein lies the key difference between this recess appointment and, say, the appointment of John Bolton as U.N. ambassador in 2005. Bolton was unequivocal in his hatred of the U.N. Hence, he was the perfect man for the job. Michael Brown knew nothing about emergency management. Hence, he was the perfect director of FEMA.
In the meantime, there’s a government out there that needs to function. A new agency has been created through an act of Congress signed into law by the president, pursuant to all the requirements of the Constitution. That agency needs a director in order to fully carry out the duties with which Congress entrusted it. Having failed at stopping the agency from existing, Republicans’ next run-around was to see to it that the agency couldn’t function.
It’s hard to believe that there’s a place in the world where not wanting an organization to function is a virtue, but it’s the Senate, and specifically, it’s the Republican side of the aisle. Democrats, too, receive their fair compensation from banks and financial institutions, but they do not have the same existential hostility to regulation that Republicans seem to have.
And yet, the climate in the Capitol is so hideous that senators are perfectly willing, and indeed, enthusiastic, about government not doing its job. Partially blame the Senate’s new de facto supermajority requirement. Partially blame the 2012 election’s proximity: Republicans have to hold out for only a few months more to see whether their attempts over the last four years to blame Democrats for their stonewalling will result in retaking the White House.
I don’t think in James Madison’s wildest nightmares he could have imagined factionalism leading to government shutdown. The Richard Cordray problem shows us that Congress is well past the point where reasonable people could disagree, probably because we’re no longer dealing with reasonable people.