"I sat where you sat, it's harder than it looks," said Democratic senator from Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren as she opened her first Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing. Indeed, she has testified in such hearings, and would have been on the panel herself representing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau if her nomination to head the agency hadn't been thwarted in 2011.
Warren questioned top regulators from the alphabet soup that is the nation's financial regulatory structure: the FDIC, SEC, OCC, CFPB, CFTC, Fed and Treasury. Her primary question was "when was the last time you took a Wall Street bank to trial?" There were no straightforward answers.
"We do not have to bring people to trial," Thomas Curry, head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, assured Warren, declaring that his agency had secured a large number of "consent orders," or settlements.
"I appreciate that you say you don't have to bring them to trial. My question is, when did you bring them to trial?" she responded. "We have not had to do it as a practical matter to achieve our supervisory goals," Curry answered.
Warren turned to Elisse Walter, chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who said that the agency weighs how much it can extract from a bank without taking it to court against the cost of going to trial. "I will have to get back to you with specific information," Walter said as the audience stifled laughter.
"There are district attorneys and United States attorneys out there every day squeezing ordinary citizens on sometimes very thin grounds and taking them to trial in order to make an example, as they put it. I'm really concerned that 'too big to fail' has become 'too big for trial,'" Warren said.