Republican senators took turns describing her as a Communist, a Socialist and a Radical on Thursday, but it was the cautious stance of the moderate Democrats that spoke most about Saule Omarova’s prospects of becoming one of the main banking regulators in the world. country.
Ms Omarova, chosen by President Biden to head the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, has faced stiff opposition from industry groups and Republican lawmakers, with critics sometimes suggesting that her birthplace – the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan – and her education in Moscow were reasons to be wary of her.
In Thursday’s hearing to consider her confirmation, she sought to push back criticism from the Senate Banking Committee by declaring her commitment to U.S. capitalism. “I fell in love with this country and its people from day one,” she said, praising “America’s vibrant and diverse markets.”
Ms Omarova, a professor at Cornell Law School, worked with banks as an attorney at the Davis Polk & Wardwell white shoe firm and served as a policy advisor in the Treasury Department during George W. Bush’s presidency. But during her academic career, she explored ideas that would amount to radical overhauls in the structure of the financial system, including a plan she sketched out to allow the Federal Reserve to provide bank accounts to smaller clients in using its own digital currency.
Ms Omarova also proposed a new infrastructure investment authority that would match private money with the government’s contribution to fund projects that companies might not deem profitable on their own, and she has often denounced the way whose banks and their managers keep the spoils of boom times to themselves. , then turn to the public for bailouts when the going gets tough.
In her testimony, Ms Omarova said that her writings were intended to “be part of an ongoing academic debate” and that it was not fair for readers of her work to assume that she approved of every idea she gave. had explored. But Republicans on the committee said his writings were proof of his desire to nationalize the banking industry, bankrupt fossil fuel companies and take control of private investment decisions.
Some Democrats were only slightly less critical. Two moderate Democrats, Senators Mark Warner of Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana, said they were troubled by Ms Omarova’s opposition to a 2018 bill they had supported, which relaxed some bank restrictions imposed by the law Dodd-Frank from 2010. Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio and chair of the committee, asked if Ms Omarova opposed the 2018 bill only because it also created new loopholes for larger ones. banks. Ms. Omarova replied: âThat was my only objection.
The hearing ended without either Mr Warner or Mr Tester giving a strong sign of support for Ms Omarova, who needs committee approval before facing a full Senate vote.
Senators spent most of the hearing questioning Ms Omarova about her writings and opinions on the legislation, offering only a handful of questions on how she would run the OCC. The agency, which has nearly 3,500 employees, oversees nationally chartered banks, including JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo.
The next bureau chief will need to help carry out Mr Biden’s stated mission of getting the financial sector to help tackle economic inequality and climate change. This person will also play a crucial role in providing clarity to lenders on how they can participate in the cryptocurrency markets and will most likely have to help draft new rules for a decades-old anti-redlining law, the Community Reinvestment. Act.
The path to Ms. Omarova’s confirmation never seemed easy. Shortly after her appointment, bank lobbyists launched an unusually vehement campaign against her, citing in particular her upbringing under Soviet rule.
Mr. Brown, the chairman of the committee, called such attacks “McCarthyism.” But some Republicans on the committee, including the party’s most senior member Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, maintained that line of attack during the hearing.
“What worries me about Professor Omarova is her long history of promoting ideas that she herself describes as ‘radical,'” Toomey said. âI agree that they are radical. But I would also describe them as socialists.
Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana told Ms. Omarova: “I don’t know if I should call you ‘teacher’ or ‘comrade’,” prompting someone else in the room to whisper, “Oh, my God. “
Ms. Omarova has repeatedly emphasized her allegiance to the United States and to American capitalism. Responding to questions about why she said the way to tackle climate change was to “starve” the fossil fuel industry of capital, Omarova called the industry “a very important part of the world. ‘economy’ and added that she had no intention of bankrupting him. She also said she strongly supported community banks, which she said could not find “a better or stronger ally” than her.
Ms Omarova also described growing up with a grandmother who was orphaned when Stalin sent her family to Siberia for refusing to join the Communist Party, and called the government as a child an “oppressive state system, without free business and without economic opportunity for people like me.
Her ultimate dream, she told the committee, became “to come to America – the land of opportunity and freedom.”