Political News

Consumer Watchdog’s Latest Budget Request: $0

Posted January 18, 2018 3:27 p.m. EST

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s acting director, Mick Mulvaney, intensified his efforts this week to curb an agency he has denounced as a regulator run amok. His latest tactic: starve it of cash.

The consumer bureau is funded directly by the Federal Reserve and sends the central bank a request each quarter for money for its operations. On Wednesday, Mulvaney sent a letter requesting $0 for the current quarter, which runs through March.

The bureau has been sitting on a $177.1 million reserve fund, Mulvaney said in his letter. He plans to use that to cover the bureau’s projected quarterly expenses of $145 million.

“I see no practical reason for such a large reserve,” Mulvaney wrote. “It is my intent to spend down the reserve until it is of a much smaller size.”

The move is largely symbolic — the bureau has enough of a cash cushion to continue its usual operations for the rest of the quarter. It follows other recent moves by Mulvaney to spotlight the Trump administration’s desire to shift the consumer bureau’s trajectory.

On Tuesday, Mulvaney announced that the agency would reconsider a rule it adopted last year that would tightly limit short-term payday loans. But unwinding or significantly altering the rule, which took the bureau five years to develop, requires a lengthy administrative process, which the bureau has not yet formally begun.

On Thursday, the consumer bureau moved to end a case it initiated last year against four payday lenders that it said had deceived consumers by charging illegally high rates.

The four companies are affiliated with the Habematolel Pomo tribe, which has argued that it is not governed by state laws and should not have to comply with state usury rules. The tribe, based in Upper Lake, California, fought the agency’s lawsuit and denied any wrongdoing.

The bureau filed a one-line notice in U.S. District Court in Kansas seeking to dismiss its lawsuit. In a written statement, the bureau declined to comment on its reason for dropping the case.

Mulvaney also said this week that the bureau would soon seek public comments on the way it gathers information during its investigations. Last month, Mulvaney criticized that information-gathering process, calling it “fairly broad and fairly burdensome.”

None of those actions has an immediate effect on the bureau’s operations, but consumer groups expressed frustration with the approach that they signal.

“So far this week the acting director has announced plans to gut the payday lending rule, asked big banks and Wall Street special interests how they would like to destroy the agency from the inside, and now he’s screwing with its funding,” said Karl Frisch, executive director of Allied Progress, a consumer group. “What he hasn’t done is offer one announcement about actions taken to protect consumers.”

Industry groups, on the other hand, welcomed the more relaxed approach from a regulator they have long criticized as overly aggressive.

Richard Hunt, chief executive of the Consumer Bankers Association, praised Mulvaney’s call for comments on the agency’s enforcement process. Many of the bureau’s actions “certainly warrant a thorough review,” he said.