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Will the new CFPB Director be our First Real Czar?

Submitted by Zach Luck on April 22, 2011 – 11:57 amOne Comment

Wikipedia has a great list of all the “[fill-in-the-broad-policy-concern] Czars” here.  Obama has already handed out at least 37 Czar titles.  With all these Czars running around, is it possible that the first Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) might be the first real federal Czar of anything?

By “real Czar” I clearly don’t mean an absolute ruler of the late-medieval Slavic variety.  I just mean a single policy maker with significant power over some policy area, who faces relatively limited outside control and oversight.  That’s what the term implies to me – someone is the “Drug Czar” because they hold lots of power over U.S. drug policy.  This conception of what the Drug Czar can do, is, of course, not really true.  Being a federal Czar of something is more like being anointed the “organizer” or “point-person” for that issue, but “Czar” sounds pretty good, so we run with it.

So how is the CFPB job our first real Czar?  The agency directorship has two characteristics that rarely come together in administrative agencies: 1) a single head for the agency and 2) that agency head (the director) is removable only for cause during a 5 year term—meaning the President can’t fire the person at will to replace them with a political ally.  Both single heads of agencies and for-cause removal provisions are very common, but they rarely appear together.  Think through some federal agencies you’ve heard of and they will fall into one category or the other: the Federal Reserve (multi-member board, for cause terms), Federal Trade Commission (multi-member board, for cause terms), Environmental Protection Agency (single-head who gets booted by each new president), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (same).  Removal only for cause does not make an agency head entirely unaccountable.  Among other checks, Congress can always strip away agency funding.  But it does give the director a lot of independence from the sitting president, especially when appointed by a president of the opposite party

Consumers need a strong, independent, and nimble CFPB, focused on consumer protection.  Is a single agency head the best path to this goal?  Jean Noonan, who was the Associate Director of the FTC’s Consumer Protection Bureau, persuasively argues that a compromise to put Elizabeth Warren at the head of a multi-member board could be a good deal for everyone.  She argues it would put the right person in charge of the panel now, and lower the chance for radical shifts in agency policy or significant periods without authority in the future.  While I would be happy to see Elizabeth Warren get confirmed to run the agency by herself, I am nervous that the next Czar to come along might be a lot less concerned with protecting consumers.  That’s the danger with Czars; maybe you like this one, but what about the next guy?

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