WASHINGTON ― You don’t often see some of the smartest people in the country being asked to do math at a congressional hearing. (You rarely see tough questions at all, really).
That’s exactly what Wall Street executives and regulators face when freshman Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) takes her turn on the dais at hearings of the House Financial Services Committee.
The panel treated the financial world far more gingerly during the eight years of Republican control of the House that ended in January. And Porter, 45, a longtime consumer protection attorney who won a close race in November, has quickly emerged as one of the Democratic Party’s best questioners of financial officials ― establishing her as one of the brightest stars in the new House class.
Her measured tone ― combined with incisive lines of inquiry ― has put Wall Street on notice at a time when the Trump administration has zealously rolled back regulations on banks that played a central role in causing the Great Recession.
Other Democratic freshmen have raised their profiles with active use of social media, ambitious policy proposals, and controversial comments. Porter, who taught law at the University of California-Irvine, has managed to draw a spotlight in the cacophony of Donald Trump’s Washington by doing what she does best: taking witnesses back to school with a Magic Marker and whiteboard in hand.
“I’d like to ask for your help on a problem,” Porter began, as she has made a habit of doing, during a hearing earlier this month focusing on income inequality and featuring JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon.
She asked the billionaire banker to come up with a solution to help one of his employees, a bank teller who lives with her daughter in a one-bedroom apartment in Irvine. The woman, Porter noted as she jotted down a list of expenses, faces a budget shortfall every month as she struggled to make ends meet with an after-taxes annual income of $29,100.
“What do you suggest she do?” asked Porter, herself a single mom with three children.
“I don’t know. I’d have to think about that,” Dimon replied.
“Would you recommend she take out a JPMorgan Chase credit card and run a deficit?”
“I don’t know. I’d have to think about that,” he repeated, this time a bit more brusquely.
“Would you recommend that she overdraft at your bank and be charged overdraft fees?”
“I don’t know. I’d have to think about it,” Dimon said a third time, adding that he’d love to talk to the woman “about her financial affairs and see if we could be helpful.”
The exchange between a freshman congresswoman and the head of the nation’s top bank quickly went viral online, adding to her growing collection of widely seen clips in which she deftly dresses down top members of the financial services industry ― including heads of Wells Fargo, Equifax and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The congresswoman later posed for a photo with her trademark whiteboard and posted it to Twitter, inviting Dimon to “check” her work.
The treatment might have surprised Dimon, who is more used to members of Congress fawning over his business acumen. But Porter’s first few months in Congress haven’t come as a shock to some who knew her before she decided to leave academia in 2018 and challenge a GOP incumbent in an Orange County district ― once a wild notion in an area known as a bastion of conservatism that has traditionally been a seat of Republican power, one that helped catapult both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to the White House.
“Katie is whip-smart; she doesn’t suffer fools gladly,” said Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at UC-Irvine. “It’s hard to get any oxygen in Washington with Trump dominating so much of the news. She’s getting it with her sheer smarts.”
Porter’s background is well suited to her perch on Financial Services, which is tasked with oversight of the nation’s securities, insurance, banking and housing industries. She studied bankruptcy law at Harvard University with then-professor and mentor Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts now running for president. Porter later oversaw foreclosure settlements for then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris (D), who appointed her in 2012 as an independent watchdog of the banks in the state. Harris, elected to the Senate on 2016, also seeks the presidency.
Porter told HuffPost last week that in her role on the Financial Services committee, she tries to think of questions “the American people would want” answered.
“I try to ask the questions that reflect the experiences of regular people and try to get the answers they want from these often very powerful leaders who are appearing before Congress,” she said.
The congresswoman credited her staff for helping her devise lines of inquiry from lengthy binders of research. The process of refining her questions begins weeks before a hearing and continues up to the minute she begins speaking.
Last month, during another standout performance, Porter put Wells Fargo CEO Tim Sloan through the wringer by questioning his bank’s commitment to transparency, given that the institution’s lawyers openly mocked such efforts in court.
“It’s convenient for your lawyers to deflect blame in court, and say your rebranding campaign can be ignored as hyperbolic marketing, but when then you come to Congress, you want us to take you at your word,” she said. “And I think that’s the disconnect, that’s why the American public has trouble trusting Wells Fargo.”
At another hearing in March, Porter offered to give Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Kathy Kraninger ― Trump’s top financial watchdog who recently announced the agency was relaxing Obama-era regulations aimed at cracking down on predatory payday lenders ― a lesson in the difference between an interest rate and an annual percentage rate.
“I’ll be happy to send you a copy of the textbook that I wrote,” Porter said cheekily, lifting up a copy of the text focusing on contemporary consumer law.
Then she gave Kraninger a math problem involving a hypothetical two-week payday loan for a car repair taken out by a single mom; Porter even offered to give the official a calculator. After Kraninger declined to engage in what she called a “math exercise,” Porter broke it down for her using her whiteboard in a subsequent video posted to her Twitter account.
In her interview with HuffPost, Porter said she preferred using a whiteboard because it “helps show people what my thought process is” and because it allows witnesses to better focus on her questions.
In February, more than a year after an Equifax security breach exposed the data of nearly 150 million consumers, Porter opted for a more direct approach. She asked Equifax CEO Mark Begor if he would be willing to publicly share his Social Security number and date of birth, given that the company’s lawyers were seeking to dismiss a class-action lawsuit over the breach by arguing in federal court that no harm had occurred.
“I would be a bit uncomfortable doing that congresswoman,” Begor said, unwittingly falling into the trap she had laid for him.
Turning in a noteworthy performance during a congressional hearing, where members are routinely limited to just 5 minutes of speaking time, is no easy task. The challenge is often compounded for lower-ranking committee members like Porter, whose turn to question witnesses follows more senior lawmakers, and whose area for inquiry might have already been covered by others.
Given the complex nature of so many issues that before Congres, lawmakers also often have to heavily rely on their aides to research and prepare questions for each witness. The secret to the success of another Democratic shining star, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and the praise she earned for her questioning of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, for example, was the product of a team effort involving House Oversight committee staffers.
But with so many new House Democrats in Congress, aides with expertise in relevant issues can be hard to find for freshmen lawmakers.
“One of the things that helped [Porter] early on is the fact that she did know the financial services world really well; she didn’t have to wait to fill staff to write questions for her,” said Matthew Beckmann, a political science professor at UC-Irvine and an acquaintance of the congresswoman.
Beckmann added that based on what he’s heard, Porter’s performance has impressed her fellow members on the Financial Services Committee.
“Her colleagues on the committee ask her what time is her question time in order to make sure they hang around,” he said.
Porter’s seatmates on the committee ― Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa), fellow freshmen who sit to her left and right ― have also noticed, ribbing her whenever she whips out a visual aid.
“They’re always like, ‘Oh no, here we go again,’” Porter said.
Porter’s growing reputation as a sharp interrogator is giving her credibility to weigh in on other matters. Last week, she responded to the claim by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders the congressional Democrats were not “smart enough” to review Trump’s tax returns if they obtain them.
“I’ll take that bet anytime,” Porter said during an interview on CNN. “I’m trained in tax law. I’m a legal professor. I’m ready to take a look.”
After her first few months in Congress, it would be hard for anyone to argue otherwise.