Warren Has No Experience? Says Who?

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One of the big arguments against putting Elizabeth Warren in charge of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is that she's supposedly not ready to lead such a new and important agency. As the argument goes, it's great that Warren has intelligence, passion, and charisma. The problem is that she lacks experience. As Neil Irwin reported recently in the Washington Post, critics question whether "Elizabeth Warren will be as effective a bureaucrat as she is as a guest on The Daily Show."

As I wrote last week, it's an entirely legitimate argument. Or, at least, it would be...if it were true. But I'm having a hard time believing it is.

Over the last few days, I've spoken with a handful of people familiar with Warren's work over the last few years, particularly her tenure as chairperson of the Congressional Oversight Board. That's the five-member panel charged with monitoring the Wall Street bailout. I've asked these people whether they thought Warren lacked the managerial chops to run the new agency. They more or less dismissed the argument out of hand.

They pointed out that running the Consumer Oversight Panel has been no small job. Warren had to create it from scratch, just as she would the new Consumer Financial Regulatory Bureau. That has meant all sorts of administrative challenges--everything from hiring a staff to signing off on technology decisions. It has also meant dealing with a series of delicate political challenges, both outside (since the Treasury Department technically doesn't have to comply with requests for information) and within (since the five-person panel is bipartisan and ideologically diverse).

"Her job is really very similar to what the head of the CFPB would do--she's supervising the daily operations of an agency," says Adam Levitin, a bankruptcy expert at Georgetown Law who has done contract work for the Oversight Panel. "It's a political job too, since she's got a five-member bipartisan panel. There are politics to work out internally as well as pressures from Congress and the Administration."

And the results seem pretty impressive. The panel has produced consistently thorough reports and it has done so largely on time--that is, once a month. Does Warren get all the credit for this? Of course not. Does she deserve a lot? Those familiar with her work say "yes." As one source (who asked not to be quoted by name) put it to me:

It is no small managerial task to produce robust reports every 30 days. ... Elizabeth has a very good sense of where the break point is between leadership and day-to-day management. She relies on her senior staff and director for management of the panel, but there's never any doubt about who's setting the direction, who's going to hold everybody accountable, and what standards they'll be measured against.

No less important, the reports have not provoked dissent from the panelists, despite their different political perspectives. Warren may have a reputation as a barn-burner. But, one source told me, "Elizabeth has always tried to find common ground among the panelists and reach unanimity."

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