Friday, May 29, 2015

Elizabeth Warren: The Pragmatist

In his bio about Elizabeth Warren, Ryan Lizza tells a pretty interesting story that might surprise a lot of people. It takes place in 2009/2010 when a Democratic Congress was considering Wall Street reform. Warren was not a Senator yet, but was trying to make sure that the legislation included her idea for a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

Warren decided to work with Camden Fine, head of the Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA). Her goal was not to convince this group to support CFPB, but to ensure they remained neutral.

For some background on ICBA, they represent 6,500 community banks around the country. But they are no small-fries themselves. The group donates generously to both Republicans and Democrats in Congress and spends almost $5 million a year lobbying on behalf of their member's interests.  It's interesting to note how various people describe the ICBA. Here's what Lizza says about them:
For years, she [Warren] has worked closely with Camden Fine, the head of the Independent Community Bankers of America, who is considered by some to be one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington.
Michael Grunwald said this about them:
Americans are often warned that Wall Street controls Washington, but the megabanks took a beating in Dodd-Frank; the community banks, which have a presence in every congressional district, wield more power on the Hill, and fared much better.
Warren was able to convince Camden Fine and the ICBA to stay neutral on CFPB. But as Rep. Barney Frank told Lizza, she had to go a bit farther than simply talking to them to get that done.
As the Dodd-Frank bill made its way through Congress, in 2010, Fine’s willingness to tolerate it was crucial. With Warren’s blessing, Barney Frank, who sponsored the bill in the House, negotiated a deal with Fine that allowed community banks to be examined by their current regulators rather than by Warren’s new agency. “They were the ones with the clout, and that’s why I had to make a deal with Cam,” Frank told me. Warren signed off on it. “She was willing to do what she had to do as long as it didn’t give away substance,” Frank said. “Every time we came to one of those things where, to save the great bulk of the bill, we had to make some kind of concession, she understood it and was very helpful in selling it.”
In the end, the CFPB came into being because Elizabeth Warren (and legislators like Barney Frank) were willing to make concessions to "one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington." When we talk about how things work in D.C., this is what we mean. It's pretty much the same kind of deal President Obama made with pharmaceutical companies to make sure that they stayed neutral in the fight over Obamacare.

Can we change that? It remains to be seen. In the meantime, when the end game is as important as the CFPB or health care reform, you have to be willing to do what you have to do as long as it doesn't give away substance. That's pragmatism.


  1. Replies
    1. I wonder if - for a lot of people - being in the minority means assuming all you can do is shake fists.

    2. Elizabeth Warren is building power, at the direct expense of the sitting president. It's really that simple. Nancy Pelosi has power because when she has to deliver X votes, she delivers X votes. Every time. She doesn't rule over her constituency with an iron fist and deliver way more than X in lockstep on every different vote in perpetuity, she delivers the bare minimum of X and protects her flock and that's why she's the Big Boss in the House.

      But she's like 85 or whatever. And Harry Reid is retiring. And the President is on the way out, and he doesn't have many loyalists to speak of anyway. Not a lot of Democrats got elected on his watch, and besides, the legacy Dems in congress have always resented his success and identity. So there's a looming power vacuum in the D coalition. If she can bring 20 senators behind her very public shield, plus the House CPC, we're talking like 100 legislators who will declare for her and back her and rely on her fundraising. Most Clinton era Dems are long retired, and nobody has ever liked the Clintons to begin with. She's in a position to be the prime factional leader on the Hill for the next ten years.

      Nobody cares that Harry Reid and Barack Obama plainly can't stand each other. It's not anything to get sour over. They're different people in it for different things, we accept their discord as individuals with rival agendas. Only because it's a black man and a white woman are they expected to be BFFs for solidarity and goodwill.

    3. Anonymous: Very astute comment. Here's what Ryan Lizza wrote in the article I linked to:

      “I think she’s doing exactly the right thing,” Barney Frank, the former congressman from Massachusetts, told me recently, referring to Warren. “Right now, she’s as powerful a spokesperson on public policy as you could be in the minority.”...“She has an absolute veto over certain public-policy issues, because Democrats are not going to cross her. And if she were to even hint at being a candidate that would be over.” He added, “Democrats are afraid of Elizabeth Warren. No Democrat wants Elizabeth Warren being critical of him.”

  2. The operative words in her whole modus operandi are: "as long as it didn't give away substance" #GOP and #Dems don't even have that as a starting point let alone a bottom line

    1. Whoa. You really paint with a broad brush, huh.

    2. Since Frank was and Warren is a Democrat and since the Dems passed Dodd-Frank, your entire premise just blew up in your face.

  3. Substance over symbolism is the heart of good policy. Obviously at one time, Elizabeth Warren knew that. If you are so purist you cannot work with someone simply because of who they are, you will lose. Period. When that purity trumps obtaining the laws that keep Americans more safe, you have sacrificed all of us to that ideological nonsense. I would like Sen. Warren again if she'd remember that and use HER "bully pulpit" to educate her airhead progressive followers.

  4. Her bully pulpit didn't help her stop the TPA from getting through the Senate.

    This is an informative piece, Nancy. Thanks. I will bear all this in mind as I continue to observe her behavior.