Politics

Fate of Wall Street Watchdog Devolves Into a Squabble Over Acronyms

To many, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is the CFPB. Conservatives say that doesn’t even exist

Progressives are already upset with CFPB Acting Director Mick Mulvaney. Now they have something else to be angry about: semantics. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Only in Washington would an argument erupt over a federal agency’s acronym.

To progressives, the agency is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or the CFPB, which took on Wall Street and won compensation for more than 27 million consumers during its startup years under former Director Richard Cordray.

To conservatives, it is the overly powerful Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, or the BCFP, which is its legal name.

Conservatives say the bureau has frequently overstepped its bounds and Republicans will rein it in, starting with calling it by its legal name, said Norbert Michel, a senior fellow in the study of financial services at Heritage Foundation.

“They’re making the point that what’s in the statute is what they should be doing,” he said, acknowledging it won’t be easy. “I can’t even say it,” he said of BCFP. “I trip over it if I try to say it the other way. I mess it all up. So I just keep saying CFPB.”

The attempt infuriates progressives, who are already upset with Acting Director Mick Mulvaney, who took over the bureau when Cordray left last November. Progressives charge that under Mulvaney the bureau has dropped lawsuits against payday lenders, launched rewrites of rules promulgated under Cordray and softened enforcement efforts.

Conservatives counter that Cordray overreached, fining banks for loans in the auto sector they say wasn’t his business and ignoring the statute of limitation to penalize a company for actions almost 20 years before the agency was established. That the director sets his own budget with no congressional oversight and can be fired by the president only for cause are other complaints from the right.

Mulvaney said he’ll cancel a $44 million, five-year contract with the marketing firm GMMB that worked to make the CFPB a widely known acronym. He decided early this year that the bureau should refer to itself as the BCFP. In June, the entrance to its headquarters became home to yard-high, lower-case letters bcfp. The bureau said the change cost nothing because it didn’t involve any new letters.

At a hearing earlier this year, Mulvaney expressed his view on the agency’s name.

“I don’t know why we call it the CFPB but that is not the name of the organization,” he said. “The organization is the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, that is the name of the statute … the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau does not exist.”

Mulvaney nevertheless repeatedly referred to it as the CFPB in his testimony to the House Financial Services Committee in April. So did Republicans on the panel — as they had done when Cordray testified. Senate Banking Chairman Michael D. Crapo did better in July, referring to the agency by its full legal name at a hearing that included a witness from the agency.

The agency’s own website, though, has stuck with the CFPB.

“We’re the CFPB” greets visitors to the agency’s homepage, www.consumerfinance.gov. That’s followed by another four references to CFPB. At the bottom of the page, reflecting a bit of an identity crisis, links to recent news releases refer to the BCFP.

The effort to change the name simply isn’t working, observers on both ends of the political spectrum say.

“If this is something they’re trying to make stick they’re certainly not trying very hard,” said Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at the watchdog group Public Citizen.

Another bureau-owned internet domain, www.cfpb.gov, links to the “We’re the CFPB” site. As does another site, www.bcfp.gov, whose owner is listed, somewhat incongruously, as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. That site, though, generates error messages before linking to the “We’re the CFPB” site.

Neglecting the bcfp.gov link is telling, says Gilbert.

“We all still call it the CFPB,” she said. “There is no conscious shift in public awareness, in consumer advocate awareness, in the press and even within the folks who work within the agency.”

Heritage’s Michel lists many reasons he dislikes the agency. He calls it “the perfect example of giving an unelected group of government officials too much power,” and says the Dodd-Frank Act bestows “ill-defined authority” from some 20 statutes on the bureau that should have been given to the more accountable Federal Trade Commission.

But, in each case, he still calls it the CFPB. “It’s a habit now, I can’t help it,” Michel said.

That’s the sentiment, too at the law firm Ballard Spahr, which continues to use CFPB in its blog of enforcement actions and general goings on at the bureau, says Alan Kaplinsky, a CFPB specialist and frequent contributor to the blog.

“Since our readers are much more familiar with CFPB ... we continue to use CFPB and Bureau and will continue to do that until others have made the switch and there is no reader confusion,” he wrote in an email.

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