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The GOP’s Incompetent Interrogation of Biden’s Toxic Bank Regulator

House Republicans fumbled their grilling of the FDIC’s Martin Gruenberg, but Democrats were (rightly) disgusted. Time for him to go.

FDIC chair Martin Gruenberg
Graeme Sloan/Bloomberg/Getty Images
FDIC chair Martin Gruenberg at Wednesday’s committee hearing

There’s no ritual of public humiliation, in these angry times, quite like a Republican-led congressional hearing. The wrongdoer appears, contrite, before a panel that hurls hostile questions and seldom permits an answer, presuming evasion. Should the penitent venture to answer truthfully, he’ll still be cut off, because the purpose isn’t to elicit information. It’s to, well, humiliate.

Last week I wrote that President Joe Biden should fire Martin Gruenberg, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, because an independent investigation conducted by the law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton established that Gruenberg presided over a toxic work environment in which men routinely harassed women sexually and seldom got punished for it. Gruenberg didn’t know about it because, the report suggested, he had an explosive temper and underlings were afraid to deliver him bad news. Biden didn’t heed my advice, perhaps because he wanted to see how Gruenberg would hold up Wednesday to hostile grilling before the House Financial Services Committee, where Republicans hold the majority. 

Gruenberg held up fairly well, in part because he appeared contritehe promised to take a class in anger managementand in part because his Republican interrogators fumbled their assignment. They did not take him down. Biden should still fire him. 

The way Republican Chair Patrick McHenry addressed the anger issue nicely demonstrated the absurdity of House hearings these days. McHenry asked Gruenberg how he was going to convince FDIC employees that “you’re not going to treat them like you’ve treated them” in the past. “I’m giving you an opportunity to say you’re going to seek anger management counseling,” McHenry said. “Do you intend to do that?”

“I’m happy to—”

“No, no no,” McHenry interrupted. “I’m asking what you intend to do. I’m not trying to convince you in a hearing. I want to hear a plan.” 

McHenry was not, by golly, going to take yes for an answer. It fell to a Democrat (and a woman) to give Gruenberg an opportunity to answer. Representative Barbara Garcia of Texas asked Gruenberg, “Will you take an anger management course?” Gruenberg answered, “Yes.” 

If reporters routinely questioned sources as badly as McHenry questioned Gruenberg, Americans would think we won the Vietnam War and would know “Watergate” only as the name of an ugly hotel and apartment complex situated alongside the Potomac. In a separate exchange, McHenry sought to establish a link between Gruenberg’s penchant for blowing his top and the failure in March 2023 of Signature Bank, which the FDIC regulates. 

Did the workplace issues described in Cleary Gottlieb’s report, McHenry asked, affect Signature’s failure and FDIC’s response?  “As far as I’m aware it was not a significant contributor,” Gruenberg replied. But, pressed McHenry, did Gruenberg not respond with anger on the very March 2023 weekend when he first heard about Signature’s failure? “I did not,” Gruenberg replied. It turned out McHenry was asking about the wrong weekend; Gruenberg’s angry outburst had occurred two months later, in May.

The Republicans’ dottiest questioner was Pete Sessions of Texas. That Sessions doesn’t fetishize empirical evidence was established in 2020, when he was one of 147 House Republicans who voted to overturn the presidential election. “Gentlemen,” Sessions began, “I have on my door, in Waco, Texas, our district headquarters, When leaders sell ambiguity, it dismisses the role of leadership.” Huh? Sessions did not identify the source of this puzzling quotation, nor reveal its meaning. “I think you guys sell ambiguity,” Sessions said.

Why “you guys”? Because three bank regulators testified at the hearing (technically on “Oversight of Prudential Regulators”). Sitting before Sessions were Gruenberg; Michael Hsu, acting comptroller of the currency; and Michael Barr, vice chairman of the Federal Reserve. Sessions, bless him, didn’t appear to remember which of these fellows had gotten  busted by Cleary Gottlieb. “Mr. Barr,” Sessions asked, thumbing the document, “Did any of the people that are mentioned in here report within your organization?”

“My understanding is the report focuses on the FDIC,” the Fed vice chairman answered politely. “I don’t have any information.”

Sessions was not to be deterred by such obvious evasion. When did Barr find out about a 2020 FDIC inspector general’s report faulting agency safeguards against sexual harassment? Barr said he couldn’t recall exactly, then explained, again, that “the report is about the FDIC, not about the Federal Reserve.” 

Eventually a light bulb went on, seemingly in mid-sentence. “Mr. Chairm—Mr. Gruenberg, why did your organization not have a strict policy?” But identifying the right witness didn’t help all that much, because Sessions’s questions continued to demonstrate he knew little about the case. “Mr. Chairman,” Sessions finally concluded, “I find this very disturbing. I find that there is a lot of ambiguity.”

Such slapstick notwithstanding, Biden would be foolish to conclude the Gruenberg controversy will blow over. Yes, Republicans on the House Financial Services Committee lacked the competence to take Gruenberg down. But Republicans weren’t Biden’s only problem. Democrats were at this hearing too, and they were angry. “I’m pissed off,” said Representative Gregory Meeks of New York: “I can’t sit here and say I’m all right with it.” Representative Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts, former president of an Iron Workers local, said Clearly Gottlieb’s report “makes the iron workers look like boy scouts.… I’m not so sure you’re the guy to make the changes.”

Most eloquent was Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, a onetime victim of sexual assault when she was a student at Boston University. “Chair Gruenberg, you have failed your staff, people of every walk of life, but especially women employees,” she said. Granted, Pressley conceded, Gruenberg’s Republican critics were hypocrites:

The same people who seek to actively de-fund Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; who denied and undermined the #MeToo movement; who voted against the Violence Against Women reauthorization; and who don’t want to support finally passing the Equal Rights Amendment. 

But, Pressley continued: 

You have created an opportunity for Republicans who did all of those things to advance their anti-regulation agenda, and to use survivors, [of whom] I am one, of abuse, as pawns.… Personally, I do not have confidence that you can continue to lead in this role.

Pressley was right. Gruenberg must go.