Payback: Dems give CFPB's Mulvaney the Cordray treatment

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WASHINGTON — When Richard Cordray ran the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, staring down skeptical and even hostile GOP lawmakers in Capitol Hill in frequent hearings seemed a regular part of the job.

Mick Mulvaney, the senior Trump administration official who now runs the CFPB on an acting basis, and in a very different manner from his predecessor, had his first taste of that Tuesday as Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee questioned him directly over his policies at the consumer bureau.

The criticism was tempered by the fact that Democrats are in the minority and the hearing's purpose was not directly tied to the CFPB; Mulvaney was there to discuss President Trump's budget. Still, lawmakers leaned into Mulvaney over a recent lawsuit the CFPB dropped under his leadership, and his steps to reconsider the agency's payday rule, among other things.

“You seem to take great pleasure in having wiped out” the payday rule, said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.

Mulvaney, who is also director of the Office of Management and Budget, rebutted that notion. The bureau announced in January that it planned to reconsider the rule and may waive an April registration deadline, but the initial implementation phase of the rule technically began last month.

“The payday rule, as far as I know, is still in effect,” said Mulvaney.

Some of the questioning was reminiscent of how Republicans would interrogate Cordray during his appearances before Congress.

Mulvaney also took heat over the agency's decision in January to drop lawsuits against a group of payday lenders — including Golden Valley Lending — associated with an American Indian tribe.

The decision involving Golden Valley — which is said to have made loans with interest rates as high as 950% a year — was highlighted Monday in a National Public Radio report that said Mulvaney was involved in the decision to drop the suit despite his having received political donations from payday lenders in his past congressional campaigns.

“This is higher than mafia loan sharks,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said of Golden Valley's rate. He called the decision to drop the lawsuit against Golden Valley “outrageous” and “anti-consumer.”

Mulvaney confirmed that the lawsuit had been dropped, but told Van Hollen that he couldn’t discuss further details because an investigation into the company was continuing.

While the focus of the hearing was largely on the Trump administration’s budget proposal, Democrats on the panel took the opportunity to paint Mulvaney and the administration as reversing course on the populous message that helped President Trump win the 2016 election, touching on areas unrelated to the CFPB such as the recent tax reform legislation.

Merkley accused Mulvaney of slowing down an investigation into the Equifax data breach, which Mulvaney denied, and of favoring big banks like Wells Fargo over working-class consumers.

Merkley and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., both latched onto a proposal in the budget that would eliminate billions of dollars in subsidies for heating oil in cold-weather states.

“What is more important Mr. Director: the heating program or the tax cut to Wells Fargo, which has defrauded so many hundreds of thousands of people across this country?” Merkley said.

Yet Mulvaney touted the Republican tax overhaul bill that passed late last year, which lowered the corporate tax rate. He also said the Trump administration’s overall effort to reduce regulations has already contributed $8 billion in revenue to the economy.

"Our first budget put a premium on policies that would help us reach sustained, 3% economic growth, a goal designed to help millions of Americans climb out of the economic malaise that defined the previous administration," Mulvaney said in his prepared testimony. "Those policies included pro-growth tax reform and deregulation. One year later, I am happy to report that we are making progress toward our goal of higher wages, more take-home pay, and growing our nation's economy."

GOP lawmakers agreed that the administration's policies have had a positive impact on growth.

“I think less regulation’s had a great deal to do with the increase in economic growth,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

Mulvaney also pointed to Congress’ role in rolling back regulations using the Congressional Review Act, which allows lawmakers to strike down agency regulations with a simple majority vote.

“I want to thank you on behalf of the administration on the work you have taken there,” said Mulvaney, responding to a question from Grassley.

Republicans have rejected more than a dozen rules using the procedure, including the CFPB’s rule restricting mandatory arbitration agreements.

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Payday lending Enforcement Enforcement actions Regulatory relief Mick Mulvaney Bernie Sanders Richard Cordray CFPB