The lack of appointments to key jobs created by the Dodd-Frank Act makes you wonder what the Obama administration is thinking, and more specifically how much power Tim Geithner is amassing.
Just after regulatory reform was signed into law on July 21, the Treasury secretary made a big deal of pledging to goose the regulatory process and nudged bankers to follow suit.
"We will move as quickly as possible to bring clarity to the new rules of finance," he promised in a speech at NYU's Stern School of Business. "The rule-writing process traditionally has moved at a frustrating, glacial pace. We must change that."
He exhorted bankers, "Don't wait for Washington to draft every rule before you start changing how you do business. Get out ahead of the process."
But how can anyone take Geithner seriously when the Obama administration has yet to nominate any of the people who will play big roles in making Dodd-Frank a reality?
"You would have thought the day this law was passed, they would be ready," said one veteran policymaker.
Indeed, imagine how much more powerful it would have been when Obama signed Dodd-Frank if he had announced Elizabeth Warren's nomination? Instead, the administration has hosted a seven-week guessing game over who would lead the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The Harvard professor is widely expected to get the job, but now the thinking is she'll work on a temporary basis and perhaps be nominated next year.
Presidential nominations are no doubt complicated affairs, but it's not as though no one knew this agency was coming and would need a leader. The president himself pushed for the agency and has touted improved consumer protection as one of the law's major accomplishments.
Guarding against the next big systemic risk is another of the law's chief priorities. But Obama has yet to nominate anyone for the six-year term as director of the Office of Financial Research, which is being created to help the new Financial Stability Oversight Council identify looming systemic risks.
And to help ensure that the Federal Reserve Board takes its job of overseeing financial institutions as seriously as it does its monetary policy duties, the law creates a new vice chairman for supervision.
There's been no nomination from the White House on that one either, and it's a pretty easy call considering the nod must go to one of the governors already on the board.
(Obama appointee Dan Tarullo is widely expected to get the job; he chairs the Fed's committee on banking supervision and regulation.)
And it's not just the Dodd-Frank jobs going unfilled.
Since the day Obama took office it was known that John Dugan's term as comptroller of the currency would expire in August 2010. Even with nearly two years to make a decision, the administration still hasn't nominated Dugan's successor, so the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency is attempting to absorb and implement Dodd-Frank without a Senate-confirmed leader.
The Federal Housing Finance Agency — the regulator of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the 12 Federal Home Loan banks — has been in the same boat for more than a year. It hasn't had a permanent director since August 2009, when James Lockhart resigned and the administration named an acting director.
Perhaps the administration just doesn't want Senate-confirmed people in these jobs. It's a bit Machiavellian, but the longer these jobs go either unfilled or filled by interim leaders, the more power Geithner's Treasury will accumulate.
It also gives the Fed freer rein to work its will, and plenty of people in Washington, starting with the folks at the OCC, are suspicious of Geithner's allegiances. As the former head of the New York Fed, it's possible Geithner is more interested in protecting the Fed's turf than the OCC's, which is part of the Treasury.
While Geithner has said publicly that he supports Warren for the CFPB job, he may feel differently in private. In her current job as chairman of the Congressional Oversight Board, set up to police Tarp spending, Warren beat up on Geithner when he testified before the panel in June.
The fact that it's taken the administration this long to make up its mind on Warren has allowed the Treasury secretary to start setting up the consumer protection agency. And if they hand her the job on an interim basis, she will not have the same stature as she would if she were confirmed by the Senate.
And, yes, there would have been a confirmation battle over Warren, but nominating her in July would have given the administration a better shot at confirming her than waiting until next year when the Democrats are likely to control fewer Senate seats.
Warren advocates can't figure out why the administration didn't simply make a recess appointment in August; Obama could have sidestepped the confirmation process and Warren could have held the job until the end of 2011 — enough time to establish its culture.
It makes you wonder how serious the administration is about financial reform.
Quite serious, according to Treasury spokesman Steve Adamske, who said a steering committee of Treasury officials meets daily to execute Dodd-Frank.
"We are aggressively implementing this law," Adamske said. "I think it's unfair to say, in the case of the consumer bureau, that by not having a nominee by now that anything that's gone on so far would be radically changed. That's not the case."
He called it "completely untrue" to say that leaders with interim appointments have less power than those who have been confirmed by the Senate.
Adamske also noted that the administration has nominated three people to the Fed's board of governors, and that the Senate has not confirmed them yet.
True. The nominations were made April 29; one seat had been open since August 2008 and another vacant since January 2009, so it's not as though the administration rushed to fill those jobs either.
"Nominations can be in limbo for months, if not years," Adamske said.
Also true. And the Senate deserves criticism for its slow pace as well. But the first step to getting anyone in these jobs is actually making the nominations.
Barb Rehm is American Banker's editor at large. She welcomes feedback to her weekly column at Barbara.Rehm@SourceMedia.com.