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As the House Democratic majority begins wielding power, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., is among its tallest lightning rods. In her three decades on Capitol Hill, she has built a reputation for fiery advocacy on behalf of her constituents in a majority-minority Los Angeles district of below-average incomes.
Now she will conduct oversight of the titans of Wall Street. The House Financial Services panel — once considered a "juice committee" for its ability to deliver big donations to members — has the first African-American, and the first woman, to wield the gavel of the chair.
For years, Waters has clashed energetically with the Republican right, which has made her a target on ideological and ethical grounds. But for all Waters' high-volume rhetoric, Republican lawmakers credit her as a trustworthy colleague with a practical streak that can, at times, produce bipartisan cooperation. A wary business community hopes it can work with her in the same way.
Waters, 80, sat down with CNBC editor at large John Harwood in her office on Capitol Hill to discuss her reputation, her legislative agenda, and her determination to unearth the financial secrets of Donald Trump — the president who likes to deride her as a "low-IQ" adversary. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of their conversation.
John Harwood: So you think the "Angry Maxine," the "Kerosene Maxine," has been exaggerated?
Maxine Waters: I don't know about those labels. I do know this, that oftentimes right-wing conservatives will label you, they will call you names, and so I don't pay attention to names that people make up about me. I think you have to look at where it comes from. If it comes from people who are diametrically opposed to me and my philosophy, and what I care about and what I've worked on, then it is not credible, and so I pay no attention to that.
John Harwood: At one point during the campaign you said about bankers, "We're gonna do to them what they did to us." So you recently met with Jamie Dimon of J.P. Morgan, David Solomon of Goldman Sachs, what did you do to them?
Maxine Waters: Well, first of all, let me just say this, when you are speaking and you are among friends and you're with an organization that you have great relationships with, you take the opportunity to have a little fun, to perhaps describe to them in ways maybe you wouldn't describe to other people how you're going to do things, and you get them basically involved and understanding what you care about and what you have learned from your time in office, and you make these kind of quips so –
John Harwood: So people shouldn't take that literally?
Maxine Waters: Not literally. I have an open door. Even if you know you disagree with a particular industry, you let 'em in and you let 'em talk to you. It's always a learning experience.
John Harwood: Are there particular issues where you think there's a very good chance that you'll be able to work with those financial institutions?
Maxine Waters: I think the work that I have done already as a ranking member of the Financial Services Committee demonstrates that I'm a strong legislator and I know how to work with the opposite side of the aisle.
John Harwood: Are there issues where you think you can work with the Trump administration? I saw recently that they say they want to do GSE reform, for example.
Maxine Waters: First of all, you have to pay attention to the way that the president himself has defined himself. He has defined himself as someone that you can't trust, that does not tell the truth, and that will change his mind and tweet something one day and the opposite the next day. It's up to the administration to determine that they need to develop the kind of credibility and trust that they can work with other people.
John Harwood: I talked the other day to your old friend Barney Frank, who used to have this job, and he said, "Let's face it, there's not gonna be much legislating in this Congress. It's mostly gonna be about messaging." But you also have soft power. You've got the ability to use your position to make points to regulators, to make points to industry. What do you think you can get done there?
Maxine Waters: Here's what you can do effectively: You can lead your committee and define what we care about as Democrats, what I care about. We can deal with issues that we were not able to deal with when we were not in power. We could not take up the issues or lead on the issues. The chair of the committee would not entertain Democrats being able to be the leader or the sponsor of legislature. Now we can sponsor legislation. We can define ourselves. We can deal with our issues, and even if they got all the way to the president's desk and he would not sign them, we're ready for 2020. We're getting ready and we will have —
John Harwood: So you're preparing arguments for your party for 2020?
Maxine Waters: Oh absolutely. Yeah, I'm not depending on the president to sign legislation that may pass the House and the Senate and get to his desk. If that happens, that's fine, but we will have said to the public, "This is what we care about. This is what we are working on, and this is what we will do when we have all of the power that we need to get it done."
John Harwood: You've got hearings to hold.
Maxine Waters: That's right.
John Harwood: Your first one is with the credit industry. Can they expect to get a tongue lashing from you?
Maxine Waters: Well, if you watch what I have done in all of the hearings that I have provided leadership for the Democratic caucus and the Financial Services Committee, you will see that I have conducted myself in a way that would solicit information and have responses in a very normal way. There have been times when I've been challenged, and I have to challenge those who are in the witness chair, or I have to demand that they respect my time. I'm kind of known for that in the way that I ...
John Harwood: Reclaim my time.
Maxine Waters: ... Reclaiming my time, yes.
John Harwood: Do you think you can get them to change their behavior merely by having a hearing even if you can't legislate?
Maxine Waters: I do think it may back some people down. It may cause some people to rethink. We'll see, because we will have credible witnesses that have never had the opportunity to share their advice, and their opinions, and their experience.
John Harwood: One thing people on Wall Street talk about is headline risk, that is negative publicity can damage them. If you have hearings on a financial institution and have something negative to go after them on, it could affect, for example, their stock price. Do you care about that?
Maxine Waters: I think none of us should be irresponsible in the way that we deal with financial services issues. I do know that the president does not understand this. He doesn't know the relationship of his remarks to the stock market. I also know that when you have a financial institution that comes before you, and they have been involved in activity that they have received a lot of fines for, that they continue in the activity, activity such as one bank that continued to create accounts in their client's names. The people who were banking with them didn't know that these accounts were being created, or when they are made to pay for insurance, forced insurance that they didn't know about, or they did not need.
John Harwood: You're talking about Wells Fargo now.
Maxine Waters: I really am. And when you talk about having foreclosed on homes that you should not have foreclosed on, and now you're being asked, "What are you going to do about it, and how are you going to make these people whole?" Yes, it is legitimate for you to ask those questions, even if it is embarrassing. We're talking about trying to get the truth about what is going on in institutions where people have obviously been harmed, and what are you going to do about it?
John Harwood: I've seen a comment or statement from you that suggested that you might want to actually put Wells Fargo out of business. Is that true?
Maxine Waters: No, it's not true. Anybody that understands the importance of the banking community to the economics of our country would know that you don't just wish to put somebody out of business. No, it's not about putting anybody out of business. It's about asking the questions about your ability to understand your own bank. How big is your bank? Do you understand every aspect of your bank? Are you able to control it? Is it organized in such a way that you will not continue to make the kind of mistakes? All of these fines that you are getting, is this just the cost of doing business? Are you going to continue to do that?
John Harwood: Do you fundamentally believe that the American banking system and financial markets are forces for good in making the American economic engine run?
Maxine Waters: First of all, I believe in our economy, we have to have banks. It's very central to the economy and the way it works. I do believe that their interest is in making money. I believe that as a business making money is OK as long as you are not doing what we consider ripoffs. And you're committing fraud, and you're taking advantage of people. It is what oversight is all about, particularly as it relates to something like the consumer financial protection bureau that's in our committee that we have oversight for. Yes, we need banks, and we want banks to operate in such a way that they don't undermine the mission of providing credible services to the average citizens.
John Harwood: What about the idea that the only obligation of a corporation is to make money for its shareholders, and that that's what makes capitalism run?
Maxine Waters: If a bank, or any business feel that it's OK to do anything to make money, there's something wrong with that philosophy. Undermining, taking advantage of, overcharging, targeting, being unfair is not OK for any business, and certainly it's not OK for the banks. We understand that banks are there to make money and their shareholders expect them to take the kind of actions that are necessary for them to be profitable. That's all right. It is when you use your power and your influence to take advantage of people, and treat them unfairly, and basically undermine them in their ability to have a decent quality of life, that's not fair.
John Harwood: Barney Frank, your predecessor, told me that he thought that Jeb Hensarling was not an effective chairman because he was so ideological, he was so far right, even for some in his own party. Are you as ideological as Jeb Hensarling on the left?
Maxine Waters: I don't think so. Look at what I've done on the Export/Import Bank. That basically was considered something that the Chamber of Commerce and the business community thought was important, and of course, Maxine Waters was believed by some to think that it was not. I was one of their biggest advocates, and I worked very hard with some that others would not expect me to work with. I held my meetings at the chamber of commerce office in Torrance, California. This business about whether or not I can work with others, whether or not I can get along, I've proven myself.
John Harwood: The reason I ask the question is you've been very critical, for example, of Ben Carson, the Housing secretary, and said that he believes that if people are poor, that's their fault —
Maxine Waters: Yes, that's right.
John Harwood: One of your Republican colleagues told me that you're the opposite — that you think if people don't do well, that's the system's fault, and that your principal interest is not generating growth, but redistributing money from people who have a lot of money to people who don't.
Maxine Waters: I don't know who said that, but it's simply not true. If I'm being described by someone who simply does not like my style, and they're going to try and define what my philosophy is, and they can prove that based on any of the experiences they've had with me, then I just have to take it as just another criticism that does not have credibility.
John Harwood: What role, in your philosophy, does redistribution of income take?
Maxine Waters: I'm not defined in that way that I believe in redistribution. That implies that you want to take from the rich and give to the poor. I'm defined about fairness. I'm defined in a way that would create equal opportunity, not only fairness, but your government having a role and seeing to it that all of their departments and agencies are operating on behalf of all the people, and that the least of these, or just the average Joe Blow working every day is not taken advantage of.