The Importance of Elizabeth Warren

The Boston Globe, Politico, and Huffington Post are all reporting that Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren has been granted her wish to get a seat on the Senate Banking Committee.

This victory for progressives is huge. It means that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid—who makes the committee selection, later ratified by the Democratic caucus—did not cave to pressure from either the financial lobby or from Senate Banking Committee Chairman, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, who is effectively part of that lobby. (South Dakota gutted its usury laws decades ago to make the state hospitable to the back office operations of the biggest banks.)

It isn’t just that Warren is a resolute progressive. It’s that she knows so much about the financial industry, from her years as chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the TARP, and before that as one of the leading scholars of bankruptcy and consumer abuses. And it’s that she’s incorruptible, as well as very smart.

More than your typical freshman senator, Warren is also a very astute politician. She used those skills very well in calling Treasury Tim Geithner on the carpet for his management of the banking crisis, while keeping lines open to President Obama, who tapped her to be interim head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

As the Dodd-Frank Act gets eviscerated by regulatory capitulations, the Banking Committee will need to do tough oversight hearings, and nobody knows these complex and arcane issues better than Warren. There is also the matter of the weak enforcement by the Securities and Exchange Commission of the protections against multiple ways that insiders can fleece investors.

There also the issues of mortgage debt relief, and student debt relief, and the larger problem of the private debt burden on consumers. Warren literally wrote the book on this, The Two-Income Trap. So the public interest and the progressive cause will be well served by having her on the Banking Committee, where the progressive members have often been seriously outgunned.

Warren also indicated that she’d like to serve on the Judiciary Committee. Her presence is sorely needed there as well. From the continuing excesses under the so called Patriot Act and its needless surveillance of law-abiding Americans, to the glacial pace with which the Administration has nominated judges, to immigration reform, Professor Warren’s wisdom is also sorely needed on Judiciary. There, the progressive chairman, Senator Pat Leahy of Vermont, would welcome her as a colleague.

About a decade ago, as the ranks of great progressive senators were dwindling, a friend on the staff of the late Edward Kennedy remarked, “When he goes, people will not know what an effective progressive looks like.” That was an exaggeration, but not a gross one. There are still a handful of senators who are both resolute progressives and effective legislators—Leahy, Carl Levin of Michigan, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, and Maria Cantwell of Washington to mention a few.

But there used to be many, many more. With Warren, we will get one of the best.

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