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What's in a name? For Mulvaney's CFPB, quite a lot

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Would the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau by any other name still protect consumers?

With apologies to Shakespeare, it’s a question many in Washington are asking amid acting Director Mick Mulvaney’s curious quest to invert the CFPB’s name back into the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection.

“I don't know why we call it the CFPB, but that is not the name of the organization,” he told Congress earlier this month.

He reiterated those comments Tuesday morning at an American Bankers Association conference, insinuating that the change came from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., the bureau’s founder.

Mulvaney has suggested the move is an effort to hew more closely to the statutory language of the Dodd-Frank Act, which spells out the bureau’s name that way — although it’s worth noting that the phrase “Consumer Financial Protection Bureau” is also contained at least twice in the law.

The agency has gone so far as to request a name change with The Associated Press, whose stylebook is used by newsrooms across the country.

The acting director hinted at the switch last month, with the introduction of an old-school seal for the bureau, featuring an eagle with a decorative shield. Encircling the illustration is the agency’s name, spelled out as the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection.

The question is why Mulvaney is picking this seemingly superficial fight, even as he looks to overhaul central aspects of the bureau’s very functioning. This may prove yet another way for Mulvaney to leave a visual mark on the agency — on top of all that frosted glass.

“Mulvaney's efforts to downgrade ‘Consumer’ in favor of ‘Bureau’ reflect his attempt to not only weaken but also depersonalize the only federal agency with only one job, protecting consumers,” said Ed Mierzwinski, senior director of the federal consumer program at U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

The change is likely to prove more than symbolic. Some noted that it hinders the bureau’s efforts to raise awareness for the agency by confusing its brand — which it’s already spent years (and considerable government resources) trying to hone.

Those who got the bureau up and running in the early days say they were deliberate in their efforts to create a modern, consumer-focused agency — and their branding was aimed at reflecting that. That tone was meant to signal the bureau’s approach to consumers, but also to employees, to tell them what kind of agency they worked for. At the time, they rejected using a seal, a common practice among agencies, because the agency’s logo, a beam of light over the word CFPB, resonated with consumers. It was accessible and easy to understand.

As Mulvaney seeks to reshape the agency under President Trump, new priorities have emerged. The acting director might not be able to kill the agency off entirely, but he can help it fade into the background.

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

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