Friday, December 9, 2011

Abstract Policy Agendas Must Meet Institutional Realities

This is something I haven't hammered on in awhile, so I want to reinforce the point that abstract understandings of political goals and policy agenda's needs to be understood from the lens of institutional realities. The GOP's successful filibuster of CFBP head Richard Cordray is the latest example of such.

A quick primer: The Dodd-Frank Act (which went into effect back in July 2010) calls for the creation of a Consumer Protection Financial Bureau (or CFPB), headed by a director who is nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate (like all presidential apointiees). Elizabeth Warren acted as an interim director while the CFPB was being assembled, but was never nominated for the position. Robert Cordray's nomination for the position was just "defeated" by a vote of 53 wishing to begin debate on Corday's nomination, to 47 opposed. I place those quotes around defeated because, as Johnathan Cohn explains:
Remember, the Senate didn’t actually vote on Cordray’s nomination. The vote never took place because the Republican caucus, with one exception, are supporting a filibuster the nomination. Together, they do not represent a majority. On the contrary, 53 senators voted to proceed with the vote. Had the vote taken place, a majority likely would have voted to confirm him. But that’s the way the Senate works today: The majority doesn’t rule. The minority does.
To be honest, I can't think of a more perverted example of how our political goals need to be adjusted to institutional context. Democrats have not only translated the abstract policy idea of "regulating Wall Street" into a formal piece of law, but have successfully legislated this into federal law (a feat I think liberals give Democrats too little credit for). Unfortunately, here is where the institutional realities create constraints, as the Senate's Republican members have "[...] pledged to prevent any candidate from being confirmed unless significant structural changes are made to the bureau." Specifically:
Republicans want the director position replaced by a five-member commission and tighter oversight of the agency’s decisions by other regulatory bodies. They are also seeking to subject the agency to the congressional appropriations process; currently, it is funded through the Federal Reserve.
Now, I am open to debating legitimate points of the CFPB, but we are past the point. The law has been written, voted on, and is now in effect as a federal statue. The basic game Republicans are playing is a use of every procedural tactic available to extract maximal policy concessions, with out having to submit to the actual process of policy making. It's breathtakingly cynical, and counter-production to the broader goal of national health and prosperity; but it is the choice the 47 members of the Senate's Republican caucus have chosen.

The important point I want to make with this, is that these Senators have made this choice at the acquiesce, perhaps even behest of their constituents. It's unfortunate that the pigheadedness of a minority of Senators is reinforced by equally obtuse voters. I am sure there is all sorts of thing that Democrats in the House, Senate and yes, Oval Office would like to do; strength the oversight of the CFBP, extend unemployment benefits and the payroll tax cut, perhaps even force major mortgage banks to accept some kind of forbearance on the millions of subprime mortgages that threw us into a financial crisis in the first place. But we need to understand that the abstract political goals that we hold must be tempered by the possibilities allowed by our political institutions.

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