WASHINGTON — Lawmakers raised concerns Thursday about whether the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau would attempt to write and enforce new rules without a Senate-confirmed director in place.
Senate Banking Committee members from both parties said such a move would likely be illegal, arguing that the Dodd-Frank regulatory reform law would not allow the agency to write rules with just a temporary leader, such as Elizabeth Warren.
Sen. Richard Shelby, the lead Republican on the panel, questioned a top Treasury Department official on whether the CFPB had such plans, noting that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner had pledged to quickly release new lending disclosure rules.
"These are laudable goals but seem to require rule-writing authority, which I do believe the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will have once a director is appointed and confirmed by the Senate," the Alabama Republican said. "Do you believe that Treasury has rule-writing authority without a confirmed appointment? And if so, why?"
Neal Wolin, the deputy Treasury secretary, appeared to choose his words carefully in responding, allowing the CFPB some leeway to write new rules to get the agency up and running, while saying such power was restricted.
"There is limited rule-writing authority but it is constrained until such time as there is a permanent director," he said.
Still, Wolin said the agency could start work on disclosure rules, noting that the CFPB has until July 21, 2012, to write new mortgage disclosure standards.
"I think in the meantime, there is plenty of work to be done to get the various disclosures ready," he said. "We are going to make sure that this new bureau is ready to move forward with its mandates and its important focus on disclosure as quickly as it can."
Similar concerns were raised by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who attempted to pin Wolin down.
"So let me see if I understand: There's some abilities to stand the organization up but I think what you are saying today is there is absolutely zero ability to make rules as it relates to consumer protection as it relates to the financial system," Corker said.
Wolin responded that, "The authority to actually issue a rule that binds private parties, for example, is a tough one until such time as there is a permanent director."
But that did not satisfy Corker.
"Tough one, that's a vague word," he said. "If you ever think that you have the ability to actually issue a rule, would you make sure that we are all aware?"
Wolin responded that he would.
Even Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd said he did not think the law allowed the CFPB much leeway.
"It seems pretty clear, it's limited at best and all the more reason why I made the case you've got to get a director up and you've got to get someone who is Senate confirmable," Dodd said.
The retiring Connecticut Democrat said that the Obama administration had made a mistake in not already nominating a director for the agency. President Obama named Warren last month as the top administration official in charge of setting up the new agency, a move that bypassed a potentially contentious nomination process but left her without the same legal standing as the agency's director. Warren made clear in a speech late Wednesday that one of her top priorities would be to revamp financial disclosures, making them simpler and easier to understand.
While Dodd said Warren was a friend, he said the administration should have nominated an official director.
"I just don't know how much more clear I've got to make the point," he said. "I regret we lost this window over the last several weeks where I could have had a confirmation hearing and moved someone along in the process."
With Republicans poised to gain seats in the House and Senate in the midterm elections, Dodd said the new agency may be in jeopardy.
Opponents "will be looking for how to get rid of this bureau and it will be a lot easier to get rid of it if it hasn't gotten off to a start and demonstrated its value," Dodd said. "So it's at risk in my view until we get someone to run the place."