WASHINGTON — Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, made clear Tuesday that banking policy will not be the sole area of focus for the committee that he will chair in the new Congress.
Brown said housing issues received short shrift when the GOP ran the Senate Banking Committee, but that will change under his leadership.
“Housing determines so much in peoples’ lives. It determines closeness to a grocery store … It determines the school district your children live in,” Brown said in a press conference about his priorities.
He noted that the committee's full name — Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs — often gets overlooked. “You will always hear me call it, ‘Banking and Housing,’" Brown said. "Housing was a word left out of this committee’s title for far too many years and it won’t be left out any more.”
A housing area of immediate concern for the committee, Brown said, will be protecting residents from being evicted in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The first priority before this committee has to be dealing with COVID,” Brown said. “That’s the whole federal government’s first priority … so this public health crisis doesn’t become more of an economic crisis. … The first thing in this committee will be what we do to prevent evictions in the middle of the pandemic in the middle of the winter.”
He also wants to examine why lenders appear to be focusing their refinancing efforts on higher-income borrowers.
“Refinancing is a really big thing in this country, as you know, as interest rates have been extremely low for a period of time," Brown said. But, he added, "the average person that refinances … has a much higher income than the average person who holds a mortgage that has not refinanced."
Aside from focusing on housing, Brown said he hopes to examine the financial system through a “climate lens and through a racial justice lens,” and expanding financial services access to the underserved.
He said he plans to hold big banks and technology firms accountable for their impact on consumers, and to urge the regulatory agencies to renew their focus on consumer issues.
Brown also envisions a more active role for subcommittee chairs in the new congressional session.
“You will see, in large part because of pent up demand of a Senate that didn’t do anything … you are going to see the subcommittee chairs in the banking, housing committee active, holding hearings, writing legislation, doing things, because they are as eager as I am,” Brown said.
One of the ways that Brown has proposed to expand financial services access to underbanked communities is by giving consumers free FedAccount digital wallets, allowing them to access economic stimulus checks and other forms of government aid.
“The FedAccounts in essence will be administering in some way these no-fee bank accounts,” Brown said. “It costs a lot of money to be poor. … You have to pay to cash a paycheck when you go to a local bank often.”
Brown said he intends to hold hearings with big-bank CEOs, though he has not set a time frame.
“They have a lot of power and we need to know more about how they do their business and is there a connection between stock prices and huge CEO payouts and huge executive compensation and the flatness of wages in our economy?” Brown said. “So I think the more we hear from them the better.”
Brown also signaled that he intends to invoke the Congressional Review Act to reverse rules issued during the Trump administration, though he did not say which rules he would target.
“There will be a handful … and they will come to a vote on the Senate floor and the House floor, sometime, I assume before April,” Brown said.
He said that he is looking forward to new leadership at the financial regulators. Brown has already told Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Kathy Kraninger that she should resign. It has been reported that Comptroller of the Currency Brian Brooks could leave the agency at the end of the week.
“Kathy Kraninger, as I’ve told her on the phone, she needs to resign on [Jan. 20],” Brown said. “If she doesn’t, she’ll be fired by the Biden people, I’d be pretty certain."
Referring to a Politico story earlier in the day saying that Brooks is planning to leave the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, Brown said, "I think that’s good that Brian Brooks quit."
"I think he was starting to do damage there with a number of things he did," Brown said.
Brown added that he doesn’t think that new legislation is necessary to strengthen the CFPB.
“I don’t know that they need legislation, they just need a director that actually cares about consumers and not the president and the president’s big corporate backers,” Brown said.
Brown admitted that he was not sure whether he could enact ambitious proposals to reform the credit reporting system. President-elect Joe Biden has put out policy proposals supporting the creation of a public credit reporting agency to promote financial inclusion for people who are credit invisible. But Brown said he hopes to examine how credit scores contribute to consumers’ ability to refinance loans.
“If there is a way to find out about that, we need to do it,” Brown said. “It may be just hearings, it may be calling bankers, it may be talking to the credit reporting agencies.”