Listening Requires an Open Mind
Listening is a skill required by most professions, but in journalism, it's essential.
Sometimes, listening means you change your mind.
This week, I changed my mind regarding discrimination at the CFPB.
I had good reason to doubt the April 2 hearing investigating such claims would be worth our resources.
Congressional hearings, in my opinion, are primarily for show. Our elected officials express plenty of concern at hearings, and sometimes it's even genuine. But despite all the rhetoric, action rarely follows a hearing.
Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, doesn't like the CFPB. Whenever he calls a hearing that focuses on the CFPB or secondary mortgage market reform, his other pet project, you can guarantee it fits into his political agenda.
That's part of the fun of being chairman.
Although I think it's disrespectful, even on polarized Capitol Hill, to refuse to appear before Congress, I could understand why CFPB officials were reluctant to appear, and why Democrats wanted the hearing canceled.
After all, only one employee was willing to testify about this allegedly systemic problem.
In litigious Southern California, where I’ve spent most of my career, unlawful termination suits are just part of the turnover process. One suit does not a toxic work environment make.
Then I watched the hearing.
If just half of what the witness said was true, the CFPB does, indeed, have a big problem.
The witness, CFPB attorney Angela Martin, seemed genuine enough to me. My B.S. radar, while not perfect, is pretty reliable. And the things she said were so inflammatory and extreme, if she lied, I’d think the CFPB would pursue legal action against her.
Even Ranking Member Maxine Waters, the Californian who led the Democrats’ effort to cancel the hearing, admitted she appreciated the witness coming forward. Granted, Waters politicized the statement, saying the witness’ claims underscored the need for disparate impact. But as a 75-year-old black woman, I’m sure she has experienced plenty of discrimination.
It was obvious she listened, too.
This week I also found myself seeing the home-based credit union proposal in a new light. I’ve always been supportive of the NCUA's efforts to provide a safe work environment for employees.
If examiners aren't allowed to use the restroom at some home-based credit unions, and have been bitten by dogs, those are legal and regulatory liabilities.
And if an examiner files an OSHA complaint or a lawsuit, guess who gets to pay for it?
Credit unions, that's who.
In that respect, the rule is a good one overall for the industry.
This week, I discussed the proposal with NCUA Chairman Debbie Matz. She also brought up budget considerations that got me to thinking.
Yes, Americans have the right to form cooperatives. But do they have the right to form their own private institution, when they could easily get service elsewhere, and force the rest of the industry to subsidize supervision costs?
It's the classic small credit union debate, but intensified here. There's a difference between a small credit union serving an otherwise unbanked group or area, and an entitled cooperative that sucks up the resources of many for the benefit of a few. A home-base doesn't automatically separate the two, but stubbornly refusing to expand to the point where federal examiners aren't running into OSHA violations doesn't look good.
Board Member Michael Fryzel suggested in a CU Times letter to the editor that instead of evicting home-based credit unions, the NCUA should send two examiners into home-based institutions to guarantee safety and shore up liability.
But I can't imagine that going over well in November when next year's operating budget is proposed.
Determining where the rights of the few infringe upon the rights of the many is a difficult process; but, in this case, I’ve changed my mind.
I think the NCUA is right.
All of the home-based credit unions we’ve interviewed said their examiners have never complained about work conditions, and they’re gracious hosts. Perhaps the rule could be adjusted so that it's implemented only if the credit union is unable or unwilling to provide a safe work environment, or if credit union officials aren't properly safeguarding sensitive data, or are unprofessional to the point of being risky.
Some of those are subjective calls, so the rule would have to be well-written. However, given the difficult regulatory topics the NCUA has tackled in the past five years, I have confidence they can handle this one.