Everyone, it seems, gets a nickname from Donald Trump, but Elizabeth Warren, the senator from Massachusetts, is among the few lucky enough to have two. There is the best known one, Pocanhontas, alluding to her claims of Indian ancestry. And there’s “Goofy Elizabeth Warren,” which Trump seems to prefer when he tweets that Warren is a senator who “does nothing.”
No surprise that Trump attacks Warren. She’s an oft-cited Democratic vice presidential prospect, popular among both Clinton voters and Bernie Sanders’ supporters. In the Twitter election, she is (yes, like Trump) her own social media expert, one of the few Democrats eager to take Trump on tweet-for-tweet. But it’s especially hard to defend the last part of Trump’s attack. Because there’s hardly anyone else who thinks of her as a do-nothing senator.
The role Warren plays is really somewhat different (and perhaps bigger) than most senators. Her best known accomplishment, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, predates her time in the U.S. Senate. She was its most public advocate, and almost became its head before Republicans scuttled her nomination. Now she is its chief defender and proponent. Really, she’s taken on a mantle similar to that once worn by Ralph Nader: chief national consumer advocate.
By the numbers alone, Warren is a moderately active senator, having sponsored 15 bills in her first Congress, and 22 in the current, 2015-16, session. That’s not especially high, though it is more than Republican Bob Corker, reportedly a potential Trump vice presidential pick, or Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, one of Trump’s most active supporters.
Counting bills, though, isn’t really how you measure Senate accomplishments. Warren’s outsized impact on Congress hasn’t been in passing new laws. It’s in keeping alive a couple of older ones. It’s in shutting down Republican efforts to roll back Dodd-Frank, the financial overhaul passed after the 2008 financial crisis, and thwarting the GOP push to dismantle the CFPB.
The best way to see Warren’s influence is to look at the words of her opponents. Hardly any other legislator inspires the kind of vituperation that Warren does in her opponents. Last year, House finance committee chairman Jeb Hensarling clashed with Democrats over changes to regulation of complex financial instruments. “Certain Democrats,” Hensarling said in a press release, “seem to think they have the moral authority to cripple Main Street in order to occupy Wall Street.” The only one of those Democrats he mentioned by name? Elizabeth Warren.
Now Hensarling and Warren are girding for epic battle over the Dodd-Frank Act and the CFPB. Hensarling calls his bill the Financial Choice Act. It basically has two goals: One is to loosen the restrictions put on banks in areas like lending and capital requirements (how much money banks need to keep on hand). The other is to strip the powers of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Hensarling’s bill would force the CFPB to do a complex balancing test that would effectively slow down new regulations to a crawl. On top of that, he’d take away its ability to ban “abusive” practices, eliminating its main power.
Hensarling’s proposal has been characterized mainly as a repeal of Dodd-Frank. But it essentially destroys, the CFPB, too. And it comes at a very sensitive time. Much of the CFPB’s work in the past consisted of getting consumers relief from mortgage servicers and credit card issuers who fell afoul of federal regulations. Now, the CFPB is considering rules that are really transformative. Regulations the agency proposed for payday lenders could largely destroy the industry. It’s pursuing changes in auto lending that would wipe out dealer markups, a key source of profit in the auto industry. And it’s exploring wiping out mandatory arbitration clauses in financial services that keep consumers from taking their cases to court.
The Financial Choice Act would put an end to all that. After he’s neutered it, Hensarling wants to rename the CFPB, to the “Consumer Financial Opportunity Commission. Warren, too, would do some renaming. Her preferred name for Hensarling’s bill is the “Wet Kiss for Wall Street Act.” Yes, like we said: there’s a high degree of acrimony here. Ironically, it’s probably not “Wall Street” that has voiced the most strenuous objections to CFPB oversight. That has come from an assortment of financial players in areas a little less plush than the big Wall Street banks’ marble atriums, like the payday lenders and auto lenders (the latter have been especially vocal in trying to limit the CFPB’s authority).
Jeb Hensarling met with Trump last week to get support for his proposals. Trump has not formally signed on, though he’s previously expressed support in principle for repealing Dodd-Frank’s restrictions, saying the regulations have “made it almost impossible for bankers to function.” If Dodd-Frank rules do get repealed, it’s not clear what the short-term impact for consumers would be; much of Dodd-Frank deals with bank safety issues (like capital requirements) that are designed to keep the financial system stable.
The limits on the CFPB, on the other hand, would have fairly immediate effects for ordinary consumers. It would gut the CFPB just as it’s getting ready to flex its wings, killing all the proposed rules for arbitration, payday loans, and auto lending.
In principle, all the Republican presidential candidates supported getting rid of the CFPB. Often this is portrayed as simple payback for campaign contributions. Really, though, there’s an ideological element as well. In addition to a general distrust of regulation (and yes, the CFPB does regulate) there’s a deep seated conservative tendency to see debt as a problem of one’s own making. There’s just not that much sympathy for borrowers among the party elite.
In principle, deregulation plays well at highbrow Republican gatherings. And Dodd-Frank may be esoteric enough that no one else really cares. But it’s not clear that in practice knocking down CFPB will play well to Trump’s middle-class constituency, who have to worry about actual credit cards and auto loans.
So the battle with Hensarling does present Warren with an opportunity, whether as a senator and key Clinton surrogate or as a candidate for vice president, to tie Trump to Wall Street. It’s probably not an accident that while he’s criticized Dodd-Frank, Trump hasn’t been pinned down on detail, or directly endorsed Hensarling’s plan (nothing definite came out of their meeting, and Hensarling’s staff didn’t respond to a request for comment).
Warren’s chief activity these days is connecting the dots between Trump and Hensarling’s plan — and lighting those dots up with flames. Last week, Warren derided the GOP’s (floundering) efforts at unity as “a marriage between Donald Trump’s toxic racism and Jeb Hensarling’s Wall Street giveaways.” It’s a canny formulation, even if it’s not . A good number of Americans seem ready to buy bigotry, and a few may like the push for deregulation, but these are different constituencies, and they may be hard to sell as a two-fer.
Warren may or may not turn out to be Clinton’s vice presidential choice. There’s certainly a loud clamor, but it does leave the Democrats with a hard question about what would happen to Warren’s Senate seat. If she is, then exactly what bills Warren passes become secondary. Consumer Advocate in Chief becomes her day job for the election. If she doesn’t, well, it may indeed be fair to say that on Warren’s end not much Senate business is likely to get done in the next months. Since a lot of that business involves efforts to repeal and replace the financial regulations she had a big hand in creating, that’s probably okay by her.