WASHINGTON There was little question about the extent of Sen. Elizabeth Warren's star power when she took office in January it was just a matter of what she would do with it.
After 10 months on the job, the Massachusetts Democrat seems to have embraced a dual approach to her work, using her national following to bring attention to issues like "too big to fail" while also digging down into the weeds on illegal foreclosures, insurance licensing and other lower-profile topics, both on the Senate Banking Committee and off of it.
"Get me wound up on pensions alone, and we could talk for the rest of the afternoon," she quipped in a sit-down interview late last month with American Banker.
Indeed, Warren was less interested in discussing her high profile than she was explaining how her office can channel that energy to get more done.
"What I care about is trying to be effective. So this first year has been about learning as many tools in the toolbox as I possibly can," she said.
At the same time, it's tough to argue that her fame as a prominent scholar-advocate and founder of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau doesn't lend her outsized influence particularly on the banking panel.
"It obviously enhances her ability to make a difference in the Senate," said Sheila Bair, former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and a Warren supporter. "She has a tremendous populist following, but she doesn't abuse it and she doesn't flaunt it. But it's there it's a reality."
When she was elected last fall, many wondered if Warren would opt to follow in the path of well-known senators before her, most notably Hillary Clinton, who developed a reputation for putting her head down and focusing on constituent issues, or whether she would blaze her own trail on the back of her enormous populist support.
The reviews on that front have so far been mixed. While backers praised her efforts as measured and her ability to work across the aisle as Clintonesque, critics expressed frustration with her strong rhetoric, dismissing it as "showboating." One industry official likened her style more to Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz than to the former first lady and secretary of state.
Yet it seems like ultimately Warren has chosen a hybrid approach.
"She's taken on a combined role. Her work on Massachusetts issues, I think, has been very much in the Hillary Clinton model, and I think on nonfinancial services issues that impact average Massachusetts resident, she has gone out of the way to establish good relationships with Republicans and to work with them," said Brandon Barford, a vice president at ACG Analytics. "But she's just as much of a crusader on financial issues as expected."
Taking on GSE Reform
Most recently, the financial services crusader has delved into the nuances of mortgage finance reform, after staying quiet over the summer as debate ramped up in Washington. She told American Banker that while she praises the efforts of her colleagues, Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Mark Warner, D-Va., saying their bill "ignited a conversation" on the issue, she still has questions about how exactly a new system should be designed. Despite her earlier reticence, it's clear the former academic hasn't been ignoring what to do with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
"She is not the bomb-throwing, antibank caricature that many said she would be," said Dennis Kelleher, president and chief executive of the advocacy group Better Markets. "Her track record demonstrates that she has been strategic on the issues she has raised and has done it in a way that has not only been responsible, but has demonstrated her depth and breadth of understanding of the issues."
Many of Warren's concerns on housing finance struck a familiar tone with her larger body of work. She described the desire to ensure that a handful of megabanks don't come to dominate the secondary market, and stressed the importance of making loans available to low-income and rural families and providing additional affordable housing options to the needy.
"How a market that is privately driven is sure to give us 100% coverage in the guaranteed market is a real challenge," she said.
At the same time, she has also considered some of the more technical aspects of a housing finance overhaul. She said she is concerned with how an explicit government guarantee for the market would be triggered in times of crisis, an issue she recently raised at a Senate Banking Committee hearing as well. The Corker-Warner plan would require the private market to put up capital for the first 10% of losses, but leaves open the possibility of a structured transaction or bond guarantor model for determining when government steps in.
"Those are two very different guarantees they obviously trigger at a different point, which means they would be priced differently and would have very different implications in the marketplace," she said. "And I don't think that's been spun out yet."
Still, the freshman lawmaker appears to be keeping her powder dry on the issue, even after breaking her silence at least compared with some of her other agenda items.
Next steps include "talking through the core issues, making sure we get each of these issues fleshed out," she said.
Challenging 'Too Big to Fail'
By comparison, Warren has been grabbing headlines over concerns about Wall Street since her first few weeks in office, urging that more should be done to address "too big to fail" and wrongdoing at the largest banks. She came out swinging in February at the first banking panel hearing of the year, grilling top regulators on why they haven't pursued bank prosecutions more aggressively, an issue she's continued to press through letters, speeches and at subsequent hearings.
"She's extremely knowledgeable about financial issues, articulate at asking questions and good at getting to important issues," said Bair.
Given her experience as the former head of the congressional oversight panel to the Troubled Asset Relief Program and in establishing the CFPB, the Massachusetts lawmaker said she understands the importance of strong oversight. Warren said that she's eager to connect with regulators and keep tabs on their efforts beyond the formal avenues.
"I spend time with the regulators I call them, I talk to them, try to go out to lunch when I can, because I want them to do their jobs," she said. "I want to be best friends when they're doing their jobs, but I think it's really important that we exercise our oversight."
Those who have been subject to her wrath might describe such sentiments as more of a veiled threat than an olive branch. She's proven just as quick to take those same regulators to task when they fail to meet her expectations, be it over the government's slapdash settlement with mortgage servicers to end the troubled independent foreclosure review or its arguably generous deal with HSBC to resolve charges over years of anti-money-laundering and sanctions violations.
"I do think the role that she has played, being a very aggressive anti-bank advocate, does influence the regulators," acknowledged the industry official.
Shortly after Warren began raising the issue of how many firms agree to government settlements but do not acknowledge wrongdoing, Mary Jo White, who chairs the Securities and Exchange Commission, announced in June that the agency would begin requiring banks to admit guilt in some cases a historic shift. Soon after, JPMorgan admitted wrongdoing in major settlements with the SEC and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission over the London Whale debacle.
"Sen. Warren brought attention to the framework of these financial settlements," said Isaac Boltansky, a policy analyst at Compass Point Research & Trading.
She's also utilized her position to introduce several pieces of legislation, including a controversial "too big to fail" bill that would bring back the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act to separate commercial banking from riskier activities, co-sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Angus King, I-Maine, and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. Skeptics responded immediately, arguing that the legislation has no chance, and downplaying the bipartisan nature of the proposal.
McCain has "been in the Glass-Steagall camp for a long time," said the industrial official.
But some observers noted that the bill, like an earlier proposal she introduced that would temporarily set student loans rates equal to the rate at which banks borrow from the Federal Reserve, is more about messaging and provoking conversation at least in the short term.
"I look at both the student loans bill and the 21st Century Glass-Steagall Act as echoes of her professorial past," said Boltansky. "They are meant more to facilitate conversation than they are to serve as a framework for actual legislation."
If facilitating conversation is the end goal, it's difficult to argue against her success. Nearly half a million people have signed on to a MoveOn.org petition the senator started for her student loans bill, and almost 160,000 signers at BoldProgressives.org have endorsed her "too big to fail" bill.
Her popularity has also fueled speculation and concern from bankers on Wall Street that Warren aspires to even higher office. The New Republic sparked a flurry of attention last week by suggesting Warren may mount a primary challenge to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.
But Warren does not actually appear interested in running for president. Indeed, a Democratic Hill aide confirmed that Warren, along with several other women Senators, had signed a letter asking Clinton to run for the job. Warren herself has also publicly denied any presidential hopes and sources confirm she is not gearing up for such a campaign.
Observers also note that a primary battle with Clinton would be an uphill fight.
Still, those doubting that Warren can overcome long odds should look at her track record with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The agency, which opened its doors more than two years ago, was nothing more than glimmer in Warren's eye in the summer of 2007, when she outlined her idea for a "financial product safety commission."
Her "too big to fail" bill also looks like a tough lift, but asked about the difficulties it faced, Warren pointed to how a predecessor, Sen. Ted Kennedy, worked for decades on the issue of drug compounding, addressed in legislation that recently passed the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, where she also serves. The Senate voted Nov. 12 to consider the bill, which passed the House in September.
"He started that legislation in the 1990s, couldn't get it through, but he kept pushing. It stayed on the agenda and he pushed it again and again," she said. "You've got a good idea, you believe in it keep it out there and keep working on it."
Moving 'a Lot of Things a Little Bit'
In the meantime, Warren said there's plenty else to keep her busy. She has the highest attendance of any lawmaker on the Senate Banking Committee, showing up for a variety of less-attention-grabbing causes in addition to the big barn-burner-style hearings.
"Passing big legislation is powerfully important that's Dodd-Frank. But that doesn't happen every day," she said. "And in between those times, there's a lot of work that can be done, and that's what I've focused on."
Warren played a key behind-the-scenes role in torpedoing the possible nomination of Larry Summers to chair the Federal Reserve Board, joining the efforts of fellow Democrats on the banking panel.
"Sen. Warren's involvement throughout the process undoubtedly changed the political calculus to favor Janet Yellen's chances for nomination," Boltansky said.
In conjunction with her work to contain the big banks, the Massachusetts Democrat has raised concerns about the regulatory burden facing community banks and credit unions. Warren has spoken out about the need for a two-tiered regulatory system and asked regulators to pull back Basel III capital requirements for smaller institutions.
"Obviously, she has to take a macro view of financial industry issues in her role on the committee, but she's also really reached out to the local banking industry, as well as credit unions, on issues that would affect us here locally," said Daniel Forte, president of the Massachusetts Bankers Association.
She's also delved into crucial, yet admittedly more mundane industry issues. For example, she worked with other lawmakers on the Banking Committee to tweak a bipartisan bill on national insurance licensing this summer to modify the board structure of the National Association of Registered Agents and Brokers.
"I thought the way the governing board was structured didn't have enough balance. It was all industry representatives without having a little more diversity and point of view and strong representation on the consumer side," she said. "It's not huge, it's not the whole bill the whole thing had started long before I got here. But we got it moved a little. And you move a lot of things a little bit in the right direction, and pretty soon, the world is working just a little bit better."
Warren was also active during the markup for a Federal Housing Administration solvency bill the Banking Committee passed in July. She introduced several amendments, including one that would eliminate a requirement that borrowers be employed to be eligible for loan modifications. The FHA later agreed to change its policy in response to a letter by Warren and Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson, D-S.D.
Ultimately, how the Massachusetts lawmaker's style will evolve and where she will choose to shine her spotlight next are critically important questions that are difficult to answer. Another major industry disaster on the scale of JPMorgan's London Whale mess or worse could vault concerns about "too big to fail," and its most prominent critics, to the top of the political agenda. Providing meaningful input on mortgage finance reform could also prove to be a career turning point. Depending on the tack she takes, Warren could engender a stronger relationship with some parts of the banking sector as a thoughtful, technical thinker, or she could use the issue to push forcefully for more radical reforms to the housing industry on behalf of the middle class. Given the evidence presented so far, the answer may be all of the above.
Still, even the hero of the left and scourge of the banking industry admits she has limits.
"There are so many things to work on in the Banking Committee alone, so many in HELP and I'm on the Aging Committee," she said. "I love every piece of this work, and I see how it's all important, but there's not enough hours in the day."