Elizabeth Warren: The Pragmatist

In his bio about Elizabeth Warren, Ryan Lizza tells an 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 that 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 between $4 and $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 wrote 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.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .