WASHINGTON The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is spending too much on top officials' salaries, travel and a planned office renovation, Republicans said during a House Financial Services subcommittee hearing on Tuesday.
Lawmakers harshly criticized the agency's $541 million budget for the 2013 fiscal year in an effort to build support for subjecting the CFPB to the Congressional appropriations process.
The CFPB "is paying employees more than almost any other federal agency," said Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo. during a hearing of the House Financial Services oversight subcommittee. "Why should Congress allow the agency to continue paying high salaries, especially when Americans are out of work?"
Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., pointed to data that said the top annual pay scale at the Federal Reserve Board was $205,000 while the CFPB's top scale was $259,000.
"How do you account for that $54,000 difference?" Duffy asked Stephen Agostini, the CFPB's chief financial officer.
Agostini responded that the CFPB's pay scale is "comparable" to the Fed, saying the actual figure for the central bank is $260,000. He said that 700 of the 1,200 employees at the agency make more than $100,000 a year.
The agency has set aside about $497 million in fiscal year 2014 for continued growth in staff, technology, data and equipment.
But Republicans focused also on the $95 million that the agency has set aside for renovating its Washington headquarters.
Agostini argued that the building is old and there are two floors they cannot use because it can't yet support new technology and systems.
Beyond that, he said that the agency's budget is small compared with the other banking regulators.
"While our budget is small relative to other banking agencies, we are committed to using our resources wisely and carefully," he said. "We rely on performance information to help inform decisions and will continue to do so as we grow."
Republicans attempted to use the hearing to drive home their long-standing position that the CFPB, unlike the other banking regulators, should be subject to Congressional appropriations. Senate Republicans have refused to consider any nominee to lead the agency until three structural changes are made at the agency, including allowing Congress to approve its funding.
Democrats have said that subjecting the CFPB to the appropriations process would hurt the agency, pointing to the Securities and Exchange Commission and Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which are subject to Congressional appropriations.
During the hearing, Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., said that Congress needed more control over the CFPB's budget.
"The takeaway so far is that we have an agency that lacks oversight and lacks accountability," he said.
Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., the chairman of the subcommittee, noted that in May the Office of Management and Budget issued a warning about how much certain agencies not including the CFPB had spent on conferences. While he praised the directive, McHenry said it did not apply to the bureau since Dodd-Frank exempted the CFPB from following OMB mandates.
The OMB's alert was "the least we could hope for," McHenry said. "However, based on Dodd-Frank the bureau can simply ignore this controller alert. As a result of this lack of accountability, certain expenditures have been called into question."
Agostini argued that the CFPB has gone through several audits, both externally and through the Government Accountability Office.
"I would point to GAO's most recent audit where not only was it a clean audit but also we did not receive a management letter" recommending changes, Agostini said. "I think that speaks volumes to our internal controls and review of finances."
Most Democrats, meanwhile, applauded the agency for the initiatives it has accomplished in its first two years of existence. Rep. Maxine Waters, the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, said she was "proud" of the work the CFPB has done.
"Contrary to what some of my colleagues view as a lack of accountability and oversight, the CFPB has been transparent and forthcoming about their budget and operation," she said.
Members of both political parties, however, did raise questions about the CFPB's recent loss of leadership, citing a recent American Banker article that found more than a dozen top officials left in the past few months.
"Management clearly should accept some responsibility or at least share some of the blame for the recent large exodus," said Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Ill.
Several former CFPB officials said they had left due to cultural clashes at the agency as well as internal issues but Agostini cited other causes.
"For many folks it was time to do something different," he said.
But Republicans also pointed to an employee survey last year that showed less than half the staff agreed their training was sufficient.
"There seems to be a pattern here and I think it would be wise for you to address [the turnover] on top of when new employees are saying their concerns are not being addressed," Hultgren said. "And when banks themselves are saying examiners are not being trained. That's a significant problem I think needs to be addressed."