Supreme Court clash puts regulatory nominees on back burner

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WASHINGTON — The protracted and hyperpartisan confirmation process for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh has complicated the Senate's efforts to advance financial regulatory nominees before the midterm elections.

The Federal Reserve Board still has three vacant seats. Trump administration picks for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, National Credit Union Administration and Ginnie Mae are also still in limbo.

Rather than move quickly, Kavanaugh's nomination has been mired in controversy over sexual assault allegations, leading to calls by Democrats and key Republicans to delay the floor vote to enable a more thorough FBI probe. The fight has taken up most of the energy in Congress, casting doubt on how quickly other nominees can advance.

“The question is with the Kavanaugh thing going on, what impact is that going to have? Is that going to blow everything up and people are just going to hunker down and wait for the election or wait until after the election,” said Brian Knight, a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center. “Even then, I don’t know if you’re going to get a ton of confirmation votes.”

The three Fed nominees are Carnegie Mellon professor Marvin Goodfriend (nominated in November 2017), Kansas Bank Commissioner Michelle Bowman (April 2018) and Nellie Liang, a Brookings Institution fellow and former Fed staffer who was named earlier this month.

Also pending are Kathy Kraninger, whom the White House named in June to run the CFPB, Rodney Hood for a seat on the NCUA's board and Michael Bright to head up Ginnie Mae.

Besides the Senate's scheduling posing an obstacle, a number of the nominees have baggage of their own. Kraninger has attracted strong criticism from Democrats opposed to her running the consumer bureau. Meanwhile, Goodfriend's nomination has been in doubt for months after Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., indicated opposition. (The GOP holds a slim 51-to-49 seat majority in the Senate.)

More recently, a report in Politico pointed to some Republican concerns about Liang, who helped craft a number of the Fed's post-crisis tools for supervising large banks.

However, observers said once senators come to an agreement on any of the nominees, the process could then move quickly.

“If Liang is able to get past Republicans’ concerns, she’s on the board,” said Ed Mills, a policy analyst at Raymond James. “I think there is a balance with Liang for the need for financial stability on the board versus whether this will be disruptive for big banks’ need to get relief.”

Like Goodfriend, Kathy Kraninger failed to get any Democratic votes from the Senate Banking Committee for her nomination to be director of the CFPB.

Bowman was nominated to hold a Fed seat assigned to a governor with community banking experience. Before becoming the Kansas state bank regulator, she was an executive at Farmers and Drovers Bank in Council Grove. Bowman had been nominated along with Fed Vice Chairman Richard Clarida. But even though Clarida was sworn in on Sept. 17, Bowman has not yet received a floor vote.

With the November midterm elections fast approaching, most pollsters predict Republicans will likely maintain their narrow majority in the Senate, but Democratic control of the upper chamber isn’t out of the question. That would leave Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., with a lame-duck period at the end of the year to make a last-minute push for his priorities.

“McConnell will have a lame-duck period in which to prioritize votes and he can jam some nominations through,” said a former senior Senate staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

But movement on financial regulatory nominations may not be McConnell’s priority in such a limited time.

“Judges seem to have been the priority throughout,” Knight said. “They are the best bang for your buck in terms of lasting impact.”

Another source familiar with the Senate process raised the prospect that the midterms could worsen the congressional gridlock.

“The Senate is a relationship place and the angrier people are, the less likely things will get done,” the source said. “My experience with lame ducks is that they always underperform because people are sour."

Even if Republicans hold onto the Senate, the Democrats who were willing to move other Trump nominations forward may decide not to cooperate, forcing the GOP to rely on what would likely be a still-narrow majority.

”Whatever the end result of the Kavanaugh nomination will be, the current dynamics of the nomination and the strong feelings on both sides of the aisle suggest to me there will be little interest in cooperation on nominations during the lame duck session,” the former senior staffer said.

If the nominees aren’t confirmed before 2019, Trump will have to either renominate them in the new Congress or pick different people, particularly if Democrats are in control of the Senate.

Bowman likely has the votes already to be able to take her seat on the Fed board. Similarly, although Liang’s nomination raised some eyebrows in the GOP, she may be able to attract a consensus vote. And while Kraninger sparked anger from Democrats, no Republicans have expressed any opposition yet.

“Kathy Kraninger is kind of far along and I think has the votes,” said the source familiar with the Senate process.

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