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Consumers Be Damned: Senator Shelby, Captain Queeg and the Politics of No

Posted: 09/15/11 04:16 PM ET

Last week's Senate Banking Committee hearing on the nomination of Richard Cordray to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau featured prepared speeches that were utterly without sound and fury but still managed to do a huge disservice to American consumers. It felt like a really bad Capitol Hill reality show, devoid of all emotion, featuring actors who made Snooki and the Situation seem like "clean" coal shills at a global warming conference.

Confirmation hearings are generally only for the true political junkie, and this was no exception. Occasionally a Cordray supporter would say something intelligent, and it was clear that there are some senators who are serious about getting Cordray confirmed so the CFPB can begin its sorely needed work. However, during most of the confirmation, there was a sort of institutional narcissism at work rendering the nominee's presence virtually irrelevant. Sen. Richard Shelby -- the ranking Republican on the committee who thus had the right to speak immediately after the Chairman finished -- was to blame for this, by asserting at the outset that the hearing was "premature."

Forty-four Republican senators vowed to block anyone unless and until they were satisfied that Congress would have real control over the corporation-killing, lefty jabberwocky sired by those scourges of economic growth, Senator Dodd and Representative Frank. Senator Shelby rounded up the GOP's usual suspects: President Obama, the Democrats, and even the structure of the agency itself (more organization = more government = bureaucratic tyranny = higher taxes thereby imperiling recovery), and more or less renewed his vow on cable TV to block the nominee, stopping just short of using the word "filibuster."

It was a graphic demonstration of what matters most in Washington these days: that one party shamelessly and steadfastly seeks to thwart the initiatives of the other party -- and, of course, to depose its leader -- irrespective of right or wrong, or the needs of the American people.

There is nothing terribly "political" about Cordray's nomination. No one said he's not qualified for the job (he is widely respected by partisans on both sides of the aisle in Ohio). Only the corporations-are-people crowd disputes the need for a federal consumer protection bureau (if only to unify and simplify the existing hodgepodge of state regulations and overlapping federal agency authority). Everyone knows the CFPB will be focused on promoting financial education, rooting out predatory practices and modernizing outdated regulatory approaches.

Unfortunately, Richard Cordray is but the latest pawn in the partisan gamesmanship that is progressively killing America. It's not a good game of chess. It's a bad game of chicken. If the full faith and credit of the United States can be held hostage, as it was during the debt ceiling faux-crisis, what else could Cordray expect from these hearings?

While the pachyderms fiddle, the homeland is burning. Many argue the federal government needs to be checked and balanced. Last week, before a joint session of Congress the President pointed out the existence of 500 federal laws or regulations that were unduly complicated or burdensome. No doubt there are a whole lot more than that. Frankly (no pun intended), the Dodd-Frank Act, clearly a work in progress, needs work itself. But the CFPB is necessary, now.

While a number of needless regulations are out there, they're not all frivolous, counterproductive and/or destructive. Payday lending, debt collection and debt settlement practices, the horrifying lack of financial literacy among American citizens, and several other problems within the ambit of the CFPB are sources of great abuse, and great financial loss, for many innocent consumers. More uniform, thoughtful and tough federal regulation is a better answer, and is perhaps the only answer for certain areas of unconscionable commercial conduct, such as the continuing victimization of military personnel by financial predators and scam artists.

In Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny, Captain Queeg is removed from command when he freezes during a typhoon. The subordinate responsible is court-martialed. At trial, Queeg shows himself to be quite insane and the subordinate is acquitted. More importantly, however, we learn that if the crew had chosen to support the captain rather than oppose him at every turn, things might well have turned out differently.

The GOP wants America to believe that President Obama is the second coming of Captain Queeg, an insane man who is incapable of steering our nation through the myriad typhoons of the 21st century. In the Wouk novel, one way that Queeg demonstrated his madness was to conduct an exhaustive all-night search for some nonexistent strawberries in a war zone. Obama's unceasing effort to work with those whose sole mission in life is to destroy his Presidency is the only hint of "madness" in our leader -- and things certainly would be different if the crew at least would try to cooperate with the captain.

Enter Senator Shelby. Although he never mentioned the word "filibuster" at the hearing, it was certainly implied. The word filibuster is derived from the Spanish "filibustero" -- meaning "pirate," an entirely appropriate frame to better understand the dogma of those for whom pro-consumer means anti-business.

More than a century ago, Thomas B. Reed, former Republican U.S. Representative and Speaker from Maine, made the following observation about his fellow Congressional colleagues, "They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge." He ultimately resigned citing profound opposition to the Spanish American War -- which was, of course, replete with "filibusteros."

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

 

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