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Elizabeth Warren Lacks Experience? Says Who?

Some critics of Elizabeth Warren say she can't run the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) because she's not ready to lead such a new and important agency. Yes, she has intelligence, passion, and charisma. She still doesn't have experience. As Neil Irwin reported in the Washington Post, the critics wonder whether "Elizabeth Warren will be as effective a bureaucrat as she is as a guest on 'The Daily Show.' "

It's a 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 with direct knowledge of Warren's work over the last few years, particularly her tenure as chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel (COP).* 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 basically dismissed the argument out of hand.

They pointed out that running the COP has been no small job. Warren had to create it from scratch, just as she would the new consumer 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).

The CFPB will obviously be a lot bigger. But if the scale of the task is different, people familiar with Warren's work say, the nature isn't.

"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 COP. "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."

The results certainly seem impressive. COP has produced consistently thorough reports and it has done so largely on time--that is, once a month. And that's at least partly testament to Warren's administrative and leadership skills, as one source (who asked not to be quoted by name) told 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.

Ken Troske, a University of Kentucky economist who joined COP in May, said he's been "somewhat overawed by the workload that comes out of the oversight panel":

The law mandates that we release a report a month and Elizabeth and Naomi [Baum, the staff director] strive very hard to make sure we get our reoprt out on time. The staff on the oversight panel works incredibly hard. I’m in awe of the work they turn in to meet that schedule, because it's a demanding schedule.

Tellingly, the reports have not provoked dissent from the panelists, despite their different political perspectives. To the outside world, Warren has a reputation as a barn-burner. Within the panel, she has a reputation for developing consensus.

Just ask Troske. He was appointed to COP by Senator Mitch McConnell and, as you might expect, he's well to Warren's right. Troske is a self-described libertarian who got his doctorate from the University of Chicago and believes, as he told me, "in the efficiency of the free market--that, if left to its own devices, the market does a good job."

But Troske says that, based on his first two months, Warren seems very serious about engaging with his arguments and producing reports that they can both embrace:

The reports reflect the views of all the panel members and not simply Elizabeth--and I think she's done a good job of insuring that's the case. ... She's strived to assure all panelists support the reports, as written. I'm sure some of the conclusions in the reports may not be 100 percent of her views, if she were writing them solo, but they reflect the consensus view of the panel.

This is obviously a small sample of sources. But it's a well-informed one. And while I still don't feel qualified to say whether Warren is the best pick for the job, I'm finding the arguments against appointing her less and less persuasive.

*Sorry for the alphabet soup of acronyms.