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For Cause Removal of the CFPB Director?

posted by Adam Levitin

Mick John Michael Mulvaney's callow pursuit of a CFPB name change raises an intriguing question:  what should be done with a CFPB Director who spends all of his or her time showboating with political issues rather than actually carrying out the law?  

The CFPB Director is removable only for cause, as the PHH case confirmed. Back with Richard Cordray was Director, Republicans reportedly were attempting to assemble a dossier to justify his for-cause removal.  In the case of Cordray, the gist of the allegations was that he overstepped his authority by daring to issue non-binding regulatory guidance about indirect auto lending or was profligate in the renovations of the CFPB's 1960s-era headquarters building. But here's the thing.  The "for cause" removal statute has actual statutory language, and it does not explicitly include either overstepping authority or profligacy.  Instead, it covers "inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office."  There's some imprecision in these words, but the statutory language seems aimed at failure to act, rather than over-zealous action.  This interpretation makes sense because the courts are available to prevent against over-zealous actions, but only the President can take care that the law is in fact faithfully executed.  

As long as Donald Trump is President, the for cause removal language is of little importance.  Kathleen Kraninger is about to be confirmed as the CFPB Director, and her five-year term will extend past 2020, which means she might potentially serve under a Democrat President's administration.  If Kraninger operates similar to Mulvaney, focusing on things like the name of the agency and internal restructuring designed to undermine the agency's effectiveness, rather than on carrying out the agency's mission, that "for cause" dismissal language could actually have some bite.  

Let me be clear.  Historically, for cause dismissal has never been used.  I am unaware of any past case approving the actual for cause dismissal of an agency head (but let me know if I missed one).  Yet I think the implicit political rules have changed over the last few years such that this is no longer something that is beyond the Pale.  If Kraninger follows in the footsteps of Mulvaney, then at the very least, a Democratic President in 2021 would have a credible threat of for cause removal of Kraninger (and there would certainly be political pressure for the President to act).  This counsels for Kraninger to take a more energetic approach to carrying out the CFPB's statutory mission than that pursued by Mr. Mulvaney, who has gotten hung up on the statutory name and political headlining at the expense of the agency's mission

Comments

Interesting article. Is there any evidence that Kraninger will follow in Mulvaney's footsteps? Even if she doesn't, if the next president is a Democrat they may feel the need to remove as many of Trump's appointees as they possibly can.

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