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Obama Appoints Elizabeth Warren to "Special Position Reporting to Both Him and the Treasury Department"

This post originally appeared on the Washington Monthly. It's been difficult keeping up with the rumors in recent weeks about Elizabeth Warren and her possible role in the Obama administration. Atrios joked the other day, after a Fox News report that Warren would be the interim head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, "Went to bed, Warren interim. Woke up, she wasn't. Went for a walk, now she is again." And soon after, Fox News retracted its report and she wasn't again. As of this morning, however, we finally know with confidence what's going to happen. ABC's Jake Tapper broke the story last night, reporting that President Obama will name Elizabeth Warren to "a special position reporting to both him and to the Treasury Department," tasked with heading the effort to get the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau -- which was Warren's idea -- up and running. There are lingering questions about the details, but Tapper's report has been widely confirmed.
The decision, which Mr. Obama is to announce this week, would allow Ms. Warren, a Harvard law professor, to effectively run the new agency without having to go through a potentially contentious confirmation battle in the Senate. The creation of the bureau is a centerpiece of the Wall Street financial overhaul that Mr. Obama signed in July. Ms. Warren will be named an assistant to the president, a designation that is held by senior White House staff members, including Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff. She will also be a special adviser to the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, and report jointly to Mr. Obama and Mr. Geithner. The financial regulation law delegated to the Treasury Department the powers of the bureau until a permanent director was appointed and confirmed by the Senate to a five-year term.
This looks like very positive news. Warren is one of the nation's leading consumer advocates and experts on bankruptcy law, and has drawn fire from conservatives precisely because she's so effective in going after abusive corporate practices. Why not just appoint her to head the commission? The White House came to believe that the Senate's dysfunction would leave Warren in limbo for months, if not longer, leaving her unable to work and the consumer-protection agency unable to function. (And if the Senate ultimately killed her nomination, it would set back the process even more.) The approach the president chose allows Warren to have the authority to start making a difference right away. It's probably premature to draw hard conclusions until the official announcement is made and more details are available, but this isn't necessarily a mushy, split-the-difference compromise; at least it doesn't have to be if the White House does it right. Indeed, this is very likely news Warren backers should celebrate -- she'll be in a position to shape the CFPB the right way, and effectively serve as its functioning chief for quite a while. At some point down the road, the president may go ahead and nominate Warren to formally head the agency anyway. Ideally, of course, these circuitous tactics wouldn't be necessary. The White House could nominate an overwhelmingly qualified official to a key post, and the Senate would vote on her nomination. But as Annie Lowery reminds us, the "confirmation process is broken," forcing the administration to get creative. It's bad for the country and our system of government when unprecedented Republican tactics make a branch of government this dysfunctional. But until there's meaningful Senate reform, workarounds are necessary. In Warren's case, the solution appears to be a good one.