Republicans are putting a great deal of pressure on President-elect Donald Trump to fire Richard Cordray, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He should resist that pressure. Any effort to discharge Cordray would be illegal — and it might even precipitate something close to a constitutional crisis.
Here’s the legal background. Most federal agencies count as “executive,” meaning that their heads serve at the pleasure of the president. But some agencies are “independent” — meaning that by law, the people in charge of them can be removed only for good cause, which Congress often specifies to mean “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.”
The Federal Reserve Board, the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission are independent agencies — and so is the CFPB. Under the law, Cordray’s five-year term extends until July 2018.
Both Republican and Democratic presidents have not loved the idea of independent agencies, operating outside of their daily control. But in 1935, the Supreme Court unanimously agreed that the Constitution gives Congress the power to create such entities. The court has stuck with that position ever since — and for decades no president has even tried to remove the heads of independent agencies.
To be sure, some people believe that the 1935 decision was wrong. Suppose President Trump shares that belief and asserts his authority to fire Cordray. On the day of his removal, Cordray would be within his rights to go to court to seek a judgment that the president acted beyond his constitutional authority.