IDEALLY, PRESIDENT Obama would nominate Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Senate would promptly vote on her confirmation. But the election-season climate of toxic partisanship, coupled with the almost universal willingness to use a Senate filibuster to extend debate indefinitely, makes it impossible to fill the job this year. The agency would be meaningless without a head, so Obama would be justified in appointing her on an interim basis.
The appointment would be fully legal: Congress gave the president the option of setting up the agency on a temporary basis in the Treasury Department. And there is longstanding precedent, through recess appointments, of having officials serve in top jobs for extended periods before confirmation. Eventually, Obama would have to seek Senate approval for Warren to serve a full five-year term.
Warren, whose work at Harvard on the dangers of over-extension of credit foresaw some of the problems of the last two years, could hardly be more qualified to lead the new agency. She originated the idea to protect consumers and prevent future financial implosions. She has won plaudits for her work chairing the congressional oversight board for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. And her combination of financial expertise and compassion for the economic struggles of ordinary American families stands out.
In opting for an interim appointment of Warren, Obama would be advocating for those Americans who have been most harmed by the financial sector’s creation of a bubble that was bound to burst. And he would be helping shield financial institutions from their own worst impulses — whether or not they acknowledge the need for sounder regulatory restraint.
Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the senior Republican on the banking committee, inadvertently made the case for a temporary appointment of Warren. While calling for a Senate vetting of Warren, Shelby averred that “Elizabeth Warren, obviously, is not an objective person when it comes to the consumer issues.’’
This was the senator’s way of saying she is too ardent about protecting consumers from rapacious mortgage writers and credit card companies. Which is why Obama ought to appoint her now, let her get a start on staffing the new bureau, and let the Senate consider her confirmation to the permanent post next year.