Acting Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Mick Mulvaney has caught a classic Washington bug: a serious case of foot-in-mouth disease.

Mulvaney is getting flak for comments he made Tuesday at an American Bankers Association conference regarding his decisions as a congressman about when — and when not — to meet with lobbyists and constituents.

“We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress. If you were a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you,” he said. “If you were a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you. If you came from back home and sat in my lobby, I talked to you without exception — regardless of the financial contributions.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio
"Deciding who you will meet with based on campaign contributions is the kind of ‘pay to play’ that understandably makes Americans furious with Washington," Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said Wednesday of Mulvaney's remarks. Bloomberg News

The remarks have since hit a nerve, following a New York Times report about the incident.

Whether Mulvaney was speaking literally is up for debate, although it is worth noting that the comments were made in the broader context of encouraging conference attendees to visit their lawmakers.

“People coming from back home to tell people in Congress what issues are important to them is one of the fundamental underpinnings of our representational democracy, and you have to continue to do it,” he said just after the now-scrutinized remarks.

But the story has taken on a life of its own. Regardless of the acting director’s intent, the remarks appear to confirm the public’s worst fears about how Washington operates. They suggest a pay-for-play strategy that encapsulates what observers find so venal about This Town — a city awash in corporate funding where money can and does open doors.

The dust-up is good news for Democrats, who have a powerful new weapon against the senior Trump administration official overseeing an overhaul of the CFPB. It’s a setback for the acting director, who has already taken heat for previously calling the consumer agency a “sick, sad joke.” Rallying cries from consumer advocates and official letters from congressional Democrats — if not more serious actions, such as an ethics inquiry — are likely to follow.

Mulvaney’s comments have spurred some lawmakers to call for his resignation.

“Deciding who you will meet with based on campaign contributions is the kind of ‘pay to play’ that understandably makes Americans furious with Washington, DC,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, ranking member on the Senate Banking Committee, said in a press release Wednesday. “Mr. Mulvaney should resign, and The White House should quickly nominate a permanent CFPB Director with bipartisan support and a moral compass. Banks and payday lenders already have armies of lobbyists on their sides — they don’t need one more.”

Other lawmakers, including Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Bob Casey, D-Pa., joined the chorus of those criticizing the remarks.

It’s unclear at this point whether the flap will speed up the White House’s efforts to name a permanent director to the agency. But it’s sure to be a distraction for an agency already undergoing radical changes — and an opening for those looking to unseat the man driving them.

Bankshot is American Banker’s column for real-time analysis of today's news.

Victoria Finkle

Victoria Finkle

Victoria Finkle is editor of American Banker's op-ed blog, BankThink.

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