The interim head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau drew immediate backlash for speaking to the American Bankers Association, one of the largest and most powerful financial industry lobbying groups.
WASHINGTON – Mick Mulvaney, interim head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, told banking executives Tuesday that as a South Carolina congressman he always met with constituents. But he never met with out-of-town lobbyists, he said, unless they gave him campaign money — explaining why the bankers should push their agenda on Capitol Hill.
“We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress,” said Mulvaney, who was a leading conservative in the House until President Donald Trump tapped him to be the White House budget director, a job he still holds. “If you were a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you were a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.”
Still, he said, the priority was given to local constituents. “If you came from back home and sat in my lobby, I talked to you without exception, regardless of the financial contributions,” Mulvaney said in his address to the American Bankers Association, according to a transcript provided by the CFPB.
The ABA is one of the largest and most powerful financial industry lobbying groups, representing a wide swath of the banking industry, from JPMorgan Chase to small community banks. At the group’s annual conference in Washington, industry executives often descend on Capitol Hill to talk to lawmakers about their issues. This time the industry is focused on pushing for legislation that would roll back some regulations put in place after the global financial crisis.
Lawmakers “will never know as much about your industry as you do. They will never know as much about your issues as you do. And they will not know that it is as important to you as it is until you tell them,” Mulvaney said.
Mulvaney’s comments immediately drew backlash from Democrats after a New York Times report about the speech.
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“Nothing says drain the swamp like telling a room full of bankers to give more money to politicians who put the interests of banks ahead of people,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., said in a Wednesday morning tweet. Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., D-Pa., tweeted: “This is supposed to be a government by the people, for the people. Not a government of the thieves and the money changers. Mick Mulvaney is a disgrace.”
Bernie Sanders tweeted: “Mick Mulvaney tells us everything we need to know about how Washington works, and why wealthy special interests make billions in campaign contributions. Government should be about representing ordinary Americans, not just the rich and the powerful”
John Czwartacki, Mulvaney’s spokesman, pushed back at that criticism, saying, “He was stressing the point that when you come into town, you should get to see your member.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who has been particularly critical of Mulvaney’s efforts to make changes at the CFPB, said Mulvaney should resign. “Deciding who you will meet with based on campaign contributions is the key of ‘pay to play’ that understandably makes Americans furious,” Brown said in a statement.
Czwartacki swatted away Brown’s statement and instead noted that the senator had appeared to acknowledge that Mulvaney was the proper acting director of the CFPB, an issue that is being fought over in court and is widely contested among Democrats. “It is a breath of fresh air to hear Sen. Brown join a number fellow Democrats and acknowledge Mick Mulvaney as the acting director of the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection. That’s a big step forward,” Czwartacki said.
As an outspoken leader of the House Freedom Caucus, then-Rep. Mulvaney received several contributions from groups that now have an interest in his leadership of the CFPB, which Republicans and business groups have long complained acted as a rogue agency that needed to be reined in. The financial industry was consistently among his biggest benefactors, including Bank of America, according to the watchdog group Open Secrets. The American Bankers Association contributed $32,500 between 2009 and 2016, according to Open Secrets.
Mulvaney’s leadership of the CFPB has repeatedly drawn the ire of Democrats who worry that he is weakening the consumer watchdog agency. Mulvaney has launched a top-to-bottom review of the agency, stripped enforcement powers from a CFPB unit responsible for pursuing discrimination cases and proposed that lawmakers curb the agency’s powers.
In his speech Tuesday, Mulvaney also took aim at the agency’s complaint database, which thousands of consumers use each year to file complaints about debt collection practices, mortgages, credit cards and other matters. Republicans and the financial industry say that the database is full of errors and unverified complaints. Democrats and supporters of the agency say it is essential to the CFPB’s operations.
But Mulvaney indicated that he may stop making the entire database publicly available. “I don’t see anything in here that I have to run a Yelp for financial services sponsored by the federal government,” he said. “I don’t see anything in here that says that I have to make all of those public.”
Mulvaney’s relationship with the payday lending industry, which contributed $62,950 to his various campaigns, has also faced intense scrutiny. The industry complained for years about the CFPB’s aggressive tactics, and in 2016, Mulvaney was among a bipartisan group of lawmakers who wrote to the agency to criticize an industry rule it was developing. Two months after taking over the CFPB, Mulvaney said the bureau would reconsider the rule, which had already been finalized. He also dropped one lawsuit against a group of payday lenders, and the CFPB dropped an investigation into another lender, World Acceptance, that had contributed to Mulvaney’s campaign.
During congressional hearings last week, Mulvaney defended the CFPB review of the payday lending rules and said he was not involved in the decision to drop the investigation into World Acceptance.
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The Washington Post’s John Wagner contributed to this report.