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Nyah, Congress! No Recess for You!

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Republicans in Congress are so worried that President Obama might name someone to lead a new consumer watchdog agency that they’re refusing to go home. And they’re using a little-known parliamentary rule to keep the Senate cooped up in Washington, D.C., too.

At this rate, the fight over Elizabeth Warren, the de facto chief of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, could keep Congress in session indefinitely.

“The Speaker is certainly concerned about recess appointments,” Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R – OH), said in an email to Credit.com.

You see, normally, the House and Senate take a recess on holidays so members can go home and raise money for their next campaign. But this year, Boehner (R-OH) is refusing to let that happen. Starting on Memorial Day, and continuing this July 4 weekend, Boehner is using his power as leader of Congress to avoid calling a recess. Instead, the House will remain in “pro forma” session, meaning that while most members can go home, a few must stick around to keep the lights on.

The Senate can’t take more than three days off without Boehner’s written approval (who knew?), so he’s refusing to give that, too.

Since the Senate isn’t in recess, President Obama can’t use his power to do a “recess appointment,” which means tapping someone to lead an executive agency without the Senate’s approval.

The most obvious candidate for a recess appointment is Warren, a former Harvard Law professor who successfully lobbied Congress and president Obama to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which has the power to monitor things like checking accounts and home loans for abuses that could hurt borrowers.

Known for her fiery speaking style and penchant for skewering the leaders of the nation’s largest banks, Warren is a polarizing figure—beloved by consumer advocates, not so much by many Republicans and bank CEOs.

[Related article: Even if You Don’t Use a Bank, New Bank Watchdog Plans to Defend You]

Banking industry leaders are in the middle of an all-out war to blunt the power of the consumer bureau. With their support, Republicans have introduced bills in Congress that would cut the agency’s funding, make its budget subject to Congressional approval, and replace the director’s position with a five-member board.

In a letter to President Obama, 44 Republican senators write that “we believe that the Senate should not consider any nominee to be CFBB director until the CFPB is properly reformed.”

Warren isn’t the only possible Obama nominee that Republicans are worried about, according to a Republican Congressional aide.

Meanwhile, Warren’s supporters have called on the president to appoint her, despite the Republicans’ roadblocks. Since her nomination would be dead-on-arrival in the Republican-controlled House, consumer advocates are pressuring the administration to circumvent Congress using a recess appointment.

“He’s got to fight back against the Republican allegations in both the House and the Senate that they somehow call the shots on presidential nominees. They don’t,” says Ed Mierzwinski, director of consumer programs at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “We believe the president has the authority to make a recess appointment.”

Others wonder whether Boehner’s no-recess rule isn’t just political posturing, since the Obama administration doesn’t appear ready to capitalize on a Senate recess anyway. President Obama has yet to even nominate Warren to lead the bureau, which he must do before officially appointing her. Far from sneaking Warren in as a recess appointment, some consumer advocates wonder whether the administration is even paying attention.

Besides, Obama uses his appointment power sparingly. In eight years, President George W. Bush made 171 recess appointments, according to a study by the Congressional Research Service. Bill Clinton made 139.

So far, Obama has made just 15 such appointments.

“He has just not acted. He hasn’t shown leadership,” says Travis Plunkett, lobbyist for the Consumer Federation of America. “While the Republican position is indefensible from a consumer protection point of view, the administration must share some of the blame for the fact that the bureau will probably open its doors without a leader in place.”

With or without a director, the bureau is scheduled to open July 21.

[Related article: In Defense of Consumer Protection]

Image: Diego Torres Silvestre, via Flickr

This article was updated July 6, 2011 to correct the attribution for the letter to President Obama.  The letter was not drafted by the American Bankers Association.

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