After one of the most expensive Senate campaigns in history, Elizabeth Warren will join the United States Senate as the junior Senator from Massachusetts.But, as sceptics have already pointed out, the Senate’s emphasis on seniority will place Warren at or near the very bottom of its pecking order. Does this mean that she will be ineffective? Constrained to abysmal committee assignments and expected to be seen and not heard?
That she will be compelled to follow Senate protocols and maintain a low profile while she builds the necessary relationships? That she will follow party leadership, even when it might be at odds with her own beliefs?
Nope. I had the opportunity to work with Warren in our respective roles in providing oversight of the bank bailouts, and she never struck me as someone who would keep her head down and mouth shut in the name of serving institutional concerns. Instead, she seemed to be guided by doing what she believed to be the right thing, even if it was not always in her personal interest to do so. One anecdote I recount in Bailout occurred in 2010, just weeks before the enactment of Dodd-Frank and the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau:
Part of the setup of the new bureau was that it initially would be housed in Treasury, meaning that it would be under the supervision of Geithner. Elizabeth, who is a gifted questioner, had routinely tortured Geithner during his occasional testimony before the Congressional Oversight Panel, and there was open speculation in the press that he was opposing her appointment as director.
A couple of weeks before our lunch I had watched her absolutely pummel Geithner at a hearing. I had thought she might go lightly on him with the Consumer Protection Bureau job still up in the air. After all, she was making no secret of her desire for the job, and the White House had to be watching her every move. But she just lit him up, attacking HAMP’s design as ineffective and pointing out the damage that had been inflicted on families who had suffered through failed trial modifications. I thought it was a remarkably principled act, the exact opposite of what any other person in Washington angling for a high-profile job would have done.
So my bet is that Warren will use her newly minted Senate platform to continue her demonstrated commitment to being a loud and passionate advocate for those whose voice is often not heard in Washington, even if it means offending the sensibilities of some of her new colleagues.
I also think that the Senate has never seen anyone quite like Warren. The experiences she has gained as a lawyer, law professor, bailout overseer and as the founder of the Consumer Protection Bureau set her apart, and have given her all the necessary tools to be a strong and credible counterweight to the often overwhelming influence of the biggest banks and their armies of lobbyists and supplicants.
Too often, fear mongering by the big banks about the parade of fictional horrors that will follow implementation of meaningful regulatory reform carries the day, often by playing on the relative inexperience of individual members of Congress and their staffs. The results have been stark, with otherwise effective laws being killed or so watered down with loopholes, exceptions and waivers as to be nearly useless. These tactics will obviously not work with Warren, but more importantly, as a Senator, she will be uniquely situated to expose the banks’ arguments as false and publicly shame those who slavishly adopt their positions, be they Democrat or Republican. In other words, she can become the taxpayers’ ultimate anti-lobbyist, an apolitical agent of reform not beholden to Wall Street or to Washington.
Or not. It is impossible to know for sure what will happen when Warren gets to Washington, but I suspect it’ll be a lot of fun finding out.
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