Here we go again.

It seems impossible lately to go a day without acting Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Mick Mulvaney stirring up more outrage from critics. The latest is a report Tuesday by Bloomberg which says Mulvaney is considering several cost-cutting actions, including moving employees to the basement, forcing them to share desks and relocating some to Dallas.

The story immediately prompted both criticism and jokes on Twitter about a character in the cult movie "Office Space," Milton, a hapless employee whose desk is repeatedly moved further away from the bosses until he’s shunted to the basement and the lights are turned off.

Businessman hunched over inside a small office made from a cardboard box.
Adobe Stock

Given Mulvaney’s behavior, it might be tempting to conclude that CFPB is in the midst of a budget crisis. Far from it. The CFPB had so much in reserves last quarter — $177 million —that Mulvaney opted not to request any funds from the Federal Reserve for the second quarter of fiscal 2018.

Even if the CFPB were in financial straits, there would be no cause for the agency to seek out drastic solutions. The bureau is funded by requests to the Federal Reserve Board necessary to carry out its responsibilities. (It requested $602 million in fiscal 2017 from the Fed, below the $646 million it could have requested by law that year.)

So if the CFPB isn’t in financial trouble, what are Mulvaney and his top aides up to?

The answer appears to be about lowering employee morale.

It’s well known that Republicans had a problem with the CFPB’s former Democratic leader, Richard Cordray (now a candidate for Ohio governor). But GOP suspicion of the agency goes well beyond its leadership and all the way down to the rank and file. Republicans believe many of the roughly 1,500 employees are “true believers” who are not on board with Mulvaney’s agenda.

Mulvaney hinted at this last month in a memo that warned employees about leaks to the press.

“I recognize that there may well be some (a few? A lot?) of people who work here who aren’t happy that I’m working here,” Mulvaney wrote in the memo, according to a copy obtained by Reuters. “That’s fine. I also recognize that those folks might be interested in undermining my leadership.”

What better way to get back at some of those alleged insurgents than by forcing employees to move around in the name of cost-cutting?

Even before this latest news, Brandon Barford, of Beacon Policy Advisors, and formerly a GOP staffer on the Senate Banking Committee, said Mulvaney’s ultimate goal is to push out those loyal to Cordray and the CFPB’s founder, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

“The longer true believers in a Warren and Cordray type of mission stay, the greater the chance that they can ‘outlast’ the current acting director and Trump administration,” Barford said. “That is a key part of Mulvaney's plans — to do everything possible to make the bureau a challenging place to work for mission-driven” employees.

No doubt Mulvaney would probably say something different publicly. While a CFPB spokesman declined to comment for this article, Mulvaney has made it clear previously that because he also serves as President Trump’s budget director, he feels a special duty to be cost conscious. Adding workspace to the basement could save the bureau $16.6 million, according to the internal analysis obtained by Bloomberg, while moving some workers to Dallas could save another $2.4 million.

Yet it’s worth noting that despite running the Office of Management and Budget since early 2017, Mulvaney hasn’t announced plans to send employees at that agency to the basement or relocate them to Dallas.

That’s likely because for Mulvaney, the CFPB is different, an agency he has called a “sick, sad” joke and one he’s suggested would be better if it didn’t exist in the first place.

At the end of "Office Space," Milton responds to his repeated indignities by burning the office down. While Mulvaney can’t legally shut down the agency, he appears to be hoping CFPB employees will follow suit.

Bankshot is American Banker’s column for real-time analysis of today's news. Victoria Finkle contributed reporting to this article.

Rob Blackwell

Rob Blackwell

Rob Blackwell is the editor-in-chief of American Banker.

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