President Trump must soon decide whether to say “You’re fired” to Richard Cordray, the Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Cordray’s policies are clearly at odds with the deregulatory impulse of the administration, whose fate depends on whether it can substantially increase prosperity beyond the sluggish growth of the Obama years.
The obstacle to getting rid of Cordray is that the statue setting up the CFPB permits the President to fire Cordray only on the basis of “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.” One possibility would be to fire him anyway on the theory that the restriction is unconstitutional. Indeed, in PHH Corp. v. CFPB, a panel of the District of Columbia Circuit held that it was unconstitutional to limit the President’s removal power over the director. It acknowledged that the Supreme Court has upheld insulating other executive agencies, like the FTC, from presidential removal. But those independent agencies were directed by multi-member commissions composed of members from different parties. The panel concluded that CFPB lacks the important check of collegial, bipartisan control, concentrating power in a single official. Thus, the Constitution required that the President have the power to remove him at will.
The difficulty with acting on the panel’s analysis is that the full District of Columbia Circuit has vacated the PHH ruling to hear the case en banc. It is true that the President could still follow the reasoning of the panel ruling and dismiss Cordray. But that action would be portrayed by the press as flouting a judicial order, even though the President is not a party to PHH v. CFPB. Moreover the President’s substantial latitude to decline to follow statutes that violate his constitutional authority is premised in part on the need to obtain judicial resolution. But here the issue would already be before a court.
The President has a better option, because he has the constitutional duty to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed. “
Thank you to my friend Adam Levitin for engaging me on my critique of the CFPB’s recently-issued—but potentially invalid—“Ability to Pay” and “Qualified Mortgage” rules. One thing I particularly enjoy in engaging with Adam is that I can follow the logic of his argument and the data to which he is relying, which makes such dialogues useful because it makes it possible to clarify the relevant issues rather than obscuring them. That’s not always the case and I appreciate Adam’s clarity of exposition.
Allow me to summarize my original post. My goal was to assess the CFPB’s claim that its extraordinary independence from standard oversight and accountability procedures is justified in light of its claim to be an “evidence-based policy-making” body, constrained by the “data” and thus it needn’t be constrained by other typical accountability measures such as a bipartisan agency structure, Presidential removal power, or effective congressional oversight through the appropriations process.