After months of letter writing and political one-liners, two of Washington's most strident adversaries met Thursday to debate the future of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
On one side was Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who came up with the idea for the watchdog agency and has been among its most vocal supporters in Congress. On the other was Mick Mulvaney, who spent years criticizing the bureau as rogue agency that needed to be reined in before President Donald Trump appointed him in November to be its temporary leader.
Warren questioned Mulvaney's fitness to run the agency, given the numerous times he had voted to get rid of the bureau as a Republican congressman from South Carolina.
"In 2012, you voted in favor of a Republican budget that called for eliminating the agency entirely. Is that right?" Warren asked.
Mulvaney said he didn't have a "specific recollection" but that it "sounds familiar to me." As the scene played out, an activist known as Monopoly Man and dressed in a top hat, monocle and a white mustache that grew larger throughout the hearing sat just within the camera frame.
In Washington, it is common for lawmakers to clash with the leaders of large government agencies. The fight between Mulvaney and Warren is unique in part because neither side is typical. Mulvaney is not just a bureaucrat but the White House budget director, who has also been rumored to be in the running for the next chief of staff. Warren is not just a senator but the brains behind the bureau and often rumored to be a potential 2020 presidential candidate.
The clash has helped put the bureau at the center of a debate over the Trump administration's efforts to roll back financial regulations. Since taking control of the agency, Mulvaney has promised it would adopt a more humble approach and not push the envelope as Republicans complained it had done during the Obama administration. He recently proposed stripping the bureau of some of its power and making its less independent of Congress, exasperating Democrats such as Warren.
Part of Mulvaney's mission, it appears, has also been to disentangle the bureau fromWarren, the person perhaps most closely associated with it. After helping set up the agency after the global financial crisis, Warren was widely seen as a leading candidate to be its first director but was passed over after the Obama administration worried Republicans would hold up her nomination. Even after moving on to the Senate, Warren has remained closely tied to the bureau. After Trump was elected, Warren visited employees at bureau headquarters, taking selfies and offering pep talks, according to the Boston Globe.
"I don't want us to be Elizabeth Warren's baby," Mulvaney said at a conference of community bankers earlier this week. "Because as long as you're associated with one person, be it me or her, you're never going to be taken as seriously as a bureaucracy, as an oversight regulator, as you probably should."
Mulvaney sometimes appears to relish his role as Warren's foil. "All the stuff that you've read about me and the CFPB, I urge you to take with a grain of salt -- except the part about me keeping Elizabeth Warren up at night," Mulvaney told a group of state attorneys general in February.
At Thursday's hearing, Warren lashed out at Mulvaney over those remarks. "You've taken obvious joy in talking about how the agency will help banks a lot more than it will help consumers and how upset this must make me. But here's what you don't get, Mr. Mulvaney: This isn't about me," Warren said. "You are hurting real people to score cheap political points."
Until now, Mulvaney and Warren's beef has been largely relegated to a war of words and lots and lots of paper. Warren has sent more than half a dozen letters to the bureau questioning the director's decisions and proposed changes. In an 17-page letter last month, Warren said Mulvaney had provided "evasive, misleading, or incomplete answers" to 105 of the 125 questions she had posed in her previous letters. Mulvaney responded, in part, by thanking Warren for acknowledging that he was the agency's acting director, an issue still subject of a court battle: "I believe that is the first time you have done that; I think it accurately reflects the state of things at the bureau."
Warren is not the only senator critical of Mulvaney's tenure. At the hearing, some lawmakers questioned his decision to review a bureau rule finalized last year to rein in payday lenders. Others criticized his decision to pay $259,500 -- more than members of Congress and Cabinet secretaries receive - to four senior political staff members.
"Not only did he replace nonpartisan career staff with his political allies, he gave them enormous salaries," Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said.
Mulvaney rejected those criticisms, saying he was reforming an agency in need of more oversight. "I am trying to be a good bureaucrat. I never thought I would say that, but that is my job, and I am trying to enforce the law, vigorously when necessary," Mulvaney said.
Mulvaney had to address another foil, Leandra English, during the hearing. English, chief of staff under the bureau's former director, Richard Cordray, also claims to be the acting director. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., asked Mulvaney why English was persisting in her claim.
"I honestly don't know," Mulvaney said. "I am trying to be careful here, senator, because she's suing me. But I have never met her."
On Thursday, English asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to rule that she is the bureau's rightful leader. During the hearing, Judge Patricia Millett, an Obama appointee, questioned whether Mulvaney could independently run the bureau while simultaneously serving as director of the Office of Management and Budget. "Everything the CFPB director decides is going to be approved by the OMB director," Millett said.
Mulvaney's tenure at the bureau has been praised by Republicans, who complained for years that the consumer watchdog was too aggressive. "I personally believe you bring a ray of sunshine to a black hole of bureaucracy," Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said. "I think you're on the right track."
Sen. John Neely Kennedy, R-La., said, "I think you're doing a great job. I don't care what Senator Warren says."