What Trump is doing to consumer agency isn't normal

Mulvaney: Elections have consequences at CFPB
Mulvaney: Elections have consequences at CFPB

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    Mulvaney: Elections have consequences at CFPB

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Mulvaney: Elections have consequences at CFPB 01:38

Story highlights

  • Fred P. Hochberg: Mick Mulvaney at CFPB is one more leader who once intended to destroy the agencies they now head
  • Mulvaney joins Rick Perry, Scott Pruitt and possibly Scott Garrett in this parade of not-normal, Hochberg writes

Fred P. Hochberg served as chairman of the Export-Import Bank of the United States from 2009-2017 and is a fall 2017 Pritzker fellow at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)A new White House is tasked with filling 4,000 political jobs at over 400 federal departments and agencies, according to the Center for Presidential Transition. Perhaps it's inevitable that every presidential administration fills a few empty seats with cronies, hacks and ideologues who are unqualified for their jobs. But something very different -- and troubling -- is happening in the Trump administration.

Although the post is being hotly contested, it appears current White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney will become interim head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB, becoming just the latest Trump nominee tapped to lead an agency he had previously been intent on destroying or eliminating. Mulvaney once called the CFPB a "sad, sick, joke."
Fred P. Hochberg
This isn't normal. This isn't a new administration deciding it would like agencies to have different policy or regulatory enforcement priorities from the previous one. This is an administration trying to neuter agencies that were created and funded by acts of Congress. And this won't stop until Congress, particularly the Senate, does something about it.
    There has been no shortage of reporting about how the President is (or is not) staffing his administration, but it is often suggestive of mere managerial incompetence. For example, we have learned that the Trump administration is well behind the pace of the Bush and Obama administrations in both nominations and confirmations.
    Our government somehow has no ambassador to South Korea or permanent assistant secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affairs at the State Department amid one of the worst crises on the Korean Peninsula since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
    This is concerning, to say the least.
    But this still doesn't capture the significance of what the Trump administration is up to.
    Earlier this month, I watched Scott Garrett's confirmation hearing to lead the Export-Import Bank of the United States, or EXIM, the agency I ran from 2009-2017. When I led the bank, Garrett was a New Jersey congressman who sat on the House committee with oversight over us. Garrett didn't just question our work, as any member of Congress properly should, he clearly did not think EXIM should exist. And he said so on many occasions.
    He had decided, against all evidence, that EXIM, which provides critical export finance for domestic small businesses and foreign buyers of Americans goods and services, "embodies the corruption of the free enterprise system," as Politico reported Garrett said in 2015.
    Garrett is entitled to think whatever he wants. But to put him in charge of EXIM is, as Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown recently said, like "putting an arsonist in charge of the fire department."
    If confirmed, Garrett would join the growing list of Trump appointees, including Scott Pruitt at EPA and Rick Perry at Energy, who have expressly opposed the mission of the agency they are leading.
    An agency leader sufficiently determined to gut their own agencies — as Pruitt is and Mulvaney and Garrett certainly would be — has countless ways to do it. They can leave senior positions unfilled. They can ignore the work and recommendations of career scientists and technical experts. They can slow-walk grants, funding or financing requests.
    Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon called this strategy "deconstructing the administrative state." This White House is free to try Bannon's strategy, but not unilaterally and not without authorization from Congress.
    And yet that is exactly what it is doing. In an extraordinary move, the Trump Justice Department this summer concluded the Constitution doesn't empower individual members of Congress to conduct oversight of federal agencies.
    This is the Trump administration essentially telling political appointees they can ignore any request from members of Congress who want to investigate how executive branch agencies are doing their job.
    I know several members of Congress who may not like the EPA or EXIM but like even less a White House that doesn't respect Congress as a coequal branch of government, and this one clearly doesn't. Here is Congress' chance to take a stand.
    Congress has limited power to stop an interim Cabinet appointment for someone like Mulvaney, but the Senate can reject Garrett's nomination as chairman of the EXIM Bank. And it should.
    There are still hundreds of unfilled political appointee jobs requiring Senate confirmation, and the Senate should also deny any appointee who does not understand or respect a basic fact: Congress passes laws, creates and funds agencies, and agencies implement the will of Congress. Future political appointees should also be asked explicitly if they would respect and respond to information and oversight requests from members of Congress. If they refuse, they should not be confirmed either.
    There may come a point when Congress needs to go even further. In 1982, the House voted to hold President Reagan's Environmental Protection Agency administrator in contempt of Congress for her refusal to turn over subpoenaed documents to a House committee. It was the first time a Cabinet-level official had ever faced such a charge.
    This Congress shouldn't hesitate to take a similar step if Trump political appointees continue to willfully disregard its oversight authority.
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    For years, under both Democratic and Republican presidencies, members of Congress have been concerned by the growing power of the executive branch. And of course, a trio of Republican senators — Jeff Flake, Bob Corker and John McCain — have recently and forcefully rebuked the Trump administration for overstepping its bounds.
    We have heard some stirring words about the expansion of executive power, but now it's time to translate them into specific action that will restore the rightful place of Congress as a coequal branch of government.