August 14, 2022

Decorum Breaks Down at House Hearing

Representative Patrick T. McHenry, a North Carolina Republican who is chairman of a subcommittee of the House oversight committee, told Ms. Warren, who is directing the start of the consumer agency, that he believed she had misled Congress about her role in settlement talks between government authorities and mortgage servicing companies.

Ms. Warren denied Mr. McHenry’s accusation, saying that she clearly stated in March that she had provided advice to officials of the Treasury and Justice Departments about their investigations of fraud among mortgage-servicing companies and about their settlement discussions with the companies.

The argument was a rare collapse of the decorum that usually pervades discussions among even the most fervent opponents on Capitol Hill. It demonstrated the level of frustration some Republicans apparently have over the consumer agency, its leadership and its authority as established by the Dodd-Frank Act that followed the financial and mortgage crisis.

After an hour in which Ms. Warren repeatedly parried efforts by Mr. McHenry and other Republicans to pin her down with “yes or no” answers to questions about her March testimony — and about the bureau’s powers and responsibilities — Mr. McHenry abruptly moved for a temporarily recess so lawmakers could attend a floor vote.

Ms. Warren objected, saying that she had agreed to be present for only an hour and had no more time. Mr. McHenry disagreed and said that other subcommittee members still had questions for her.

A vigorous back and forth ensued.

“Congressman, you are causing problems,” Ms. Warren said. “We had an agreement.”

“You’re making this up,” Mr. McHenry replied, eliciting gasps from the audience. “This is not the case.”

As Mr. McHenry and Ms. Warren traded accusations, a senior Democrat, Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, tried to smooth things over. “Mr. Chairman,” he said, “I’m trying to be cordial here — you just accused the lady of lying. You need to clear this up with your staff.”

Mr. McHenry did not back down. After the meeting broke, he said in a statement: “I was shocked by Ms. Warren’s blatant sense of entitlement. She was apparently under the assumption that she could dictate a one-hour time limit for her testimony to Congress, and that we were there at her behest instead of the other way around.  This is just further example of her disregard for Congressional oversight.”

The hearing was intended to address how much supervision Congress should require for the agency. Republicans have introduced bills to eliminate some of the bureau’s independence; for example, the bureau is not subject to Congressional appropriations. A group of 44 Republican senators recently signed a letter saying they would not allow a director of the agency to be confirmed unless the Obama administration agreed to structural changes in the agency.

Faced with strong opposition to Ms. Warren, a Harvard professor, President Obama has not nominated her to lead the new bureau. In fact, officials in the Democratic Party are trying to pressure her to return to Massachusetts to run for the United States Senate in 2012.

While there were some questions about oversight, Ms. Warren apparently came to the hearing expecting a hostile reception on other topics. On Tuesday morning, hours before the afternoon hearing, Mr. McHenry said on CNBC that he believed she had lied to Congress.

“I question the veracity of her former testimony in relation to the reality that we now see,” he said, referring to documents indicating that the consumer bureau had advised the Iowa attorney general on the terms of a possible settlement between federal and state regulators and mortgage servicing companies.

Asked by the CNBC correspondent if that meant she had been lying when she said she was only an adviser, Mr. McHenry replied, “Sure.”

During the hearing, Mr. McHenry displayed the documents, which he said indicated that Ms. Warren’s involvement extended outside her designated role as an adviser to the president and the Treasury secretary to set up the new consumer bureau.

“You said you were providing advice to the Treasury secretary,” Mr. McHenry said. “Now it is apparent that you were providing advice to the attorney general of Iowa,” regarding lawsuits against mortgage servicers.

Ms. Warren said she provided advice to state and federal agencies at the direction of the Treasury secretary, adding that she had been open about her meetings and involvement in the talks. She said she had provided that information two months ago in response to a letter from House members and had heard nothing back since then.

Those exchanges led a Democrat on the subcommittee to apologize “for the rude and disrespectful behavior of the chair.” Representative John Yarmuth, a Kentucky Democrat, said to Ms. Warren that Mr. McHenry’s accusation “indicates to me that this hearing is all about you, because people are afraid of you and your ability to communicate in very clear terms the threats to our consumers.”

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