Free markets mean corporations and consumers are engaged in a constant arm-wrestling match over prices and rules governing marketplaces. When President-elect Donald Trump takes office, will the rules of this engagement change substantially?
Already, Republicans are fighting hard to dismantle, or at least dis-empower, the nation’s newest federal consumer protection agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). But that’s just one of several steps being weighed that could dramatically impact the balance of power between consumers and corporations during the next several years. Trump and his appointees will soon be dealing with everything from net neutrality to robocalls to late fees. Like so much with Trump, it’s hard to know if he stands with traditional Republican positions on these issues, or if he has his own ideas. But clearly, the future of issues ranging from payday-loan regulation and binding arbitration rules to debit card swipe fees are at stake.
(I wrote about these issues in my book, Gotcha Capitalism. It’s almost 10 years old, but the same issues are at play again.)
The power of federal consumer protection agencies like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which fields things like consumer identity theft complaints, tends to ebb and flow based on which political party holds power in Washington, and on the state of the American economy. The economic collapse last decade, combined with the rise of Democratic power in Washington, led to a host of steps taken to reign in what supporters say were abusive practices that hurt consumers, particularly by the financial industry. Financial reform saw passage of the CARD Act, which banned several credit card issuer practices that consumers found frustrating, such as double-cycle billing or seemingly random late fees and interest-rate hikes.
More important, the Obama years also saw creation of the first new federal consumer protection office in decades. As Trump takes office on Friday, a battle royale has already developed between consumer groups and conservatives who want to gut America’s youngest consumer-oriented agency. The war of words escalated last week, with opponents of the bureau calling for Trump to immediately remove bureau chief Richard Cordray, calling him “King Richard,” while supporters have promised they have “gone to Defcon One” to protect it.
The CFPB is the brainchild of Elizabeth Warren — then a bankruptcy expert, now a Democratic Senator from Massachusetts. The bureau was designed to pick up where other banking regulatory agencies, like the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), left off. Bank regulators like the OCC have the difficult job of serving two masters — both the safety and soundness of the banking industry and the fairness with which consumers are treated. Critics said the abuses apparent during the housing bubble, such as unclear mortgage documents, demonstrated that regulators sided too often with banks and neglected consumer protection. So the CFPB was designed as a consumer-first agency. It was also designed to enjoy independence from industry pressure — it is not subject to Congressional purse string requirements, and its director not subject to removal for political reasons. At least, that was the intention of Warren and Democrats who wrote the legislation creating the CFPB.
A lawsuit that went in the favor of CFPB opponents last fall has, at least for now, paved the way for removal of CFPB director Cordray. The bureau and its supporters plan to appeal the ruling, but Republicans aren’t waiting around for that. They are urging Trump to remove Cordray as soon as he takes office.
“It’s time to fire King Richard,” Senate Banking Committee member Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, wrote in a January 9 letter to Trump. “Underneath the CFPB’s Orwellian acronym is an attack on the American idea that the people who write our laws are accountable to the American people. President-elect Trump has the authority to remove Mr. Cordray and that’s exactly what the American people deserve.”
Bureau opponents say the CFPB should operate more like the FTC, with a slate of politically-appointed commissioners running things.
Last week, the Trump administration signaled it was leaning toward removing Cordray and reigning in CFPB power by revealing it had interviewed retired Texas Republican Congressman Randy Neugebauer as a potential CFPB chief. In Congress, Neugebauer was a leading CFPB critic, calling its efforts to regulate payday loans “paternalistic erosion of consumer product choices.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, indicated he will move immediately to pass legislation he proposed last term named the Financial Choice Act, which is largely designed to roll back provisions of the Dodd-Frank Financial reform bill. It would eliminate the Volcker Rule, designed to prevent banks from taking some kinds of risks with their own money; it would also remove the Durbin Amendment that limited fees on debit card transactions.
“We were told [Dodd Frank] would lift our economy, but instead we are stuck in the slowest, weakest, most tepid recovery in the history of the Republic,” Hensarling said while supporting the bill last fall.
Bureau supporters are fighting back. Warren held a conference call on January 13 with 3,000 consumer advocates where she rang the alarm about the future of the CFPB and financial reform.
“It’s time to send a message to big banks, payday loan lobbyists and their Republican friends in Congress: The American people are watching,” Warren said, according to a press release from Americans for Financial Reform, an advocacy group. ”We’re going to fight back against any efforts to gut financial reform and to allow big banks and shady financial institutions to once again cheat consumers and put our economy at risk.”
Consumer advocacy groups universally support the CFPB, which says it has returned $12 billion to 27 million wronged consumers since its inception. One group held a “One of 17 Million” event in Washington, D.C. earlier this month.
“We’ve gone to DefCon One on protecting the CFPB because the predatory lending industry and the big Wall Street banks are all demanding the President-elect illegally fire the extraordinary CFPB director Richard Cordray and replace him with one of several industry henchmen who will help Congress eviscerate the successful bureau,” Ed Mierzwinski, program director at the Public Interest Research Group, an advocacy organization, said. “But how do you fire an effective official who has protected consumers and families from financial predators exactly as Congress asked him to do? You ignore the law and you ignore the voters’ demand for an unrigged financial system. We hope Mr. Trump has better judgment than that.”
Some Consumer-Friendly Officials Departing D.C.
Already, some noted consumer-friendly officials have started to leave Washington.
At the FTC, Chairwoman Edith Ramirez announced she would resign on Friday. Ramirez focused on emerging internet of things technologies during her six years at the FTC.
“Ramirez cast a spotlight on emerging privacy issues, involving ‘smart TV’s,’ cross-device tracking and other technologies,” the Center for Democracy and Technology said, praising Ramirez’s time at the agency. “Through a series of cutting-edge cases — Snapchat, D-Link, inMobi and Turn, for example — the commission made it clear that tech companies that deceived consumers or failed to protect their security would be punished and publicly shamed.”
In addition to consumer issues like privacy, the FTC’s main charge is to enforce antitrust law. During his candidacy, Trump signaled a break with traditional Republicans over anti-trust law, suggesting, for example, that he would have blocked the Time Warner-AT&T merger. But Trump picked former FTC commissioner Joshua D. Wright to run his FTC transition team. Wright, a traditional conservative who, in an op-ed penned days after Trump’s election victory, criticized “anti-merger mania.” He said evidence shows big mergers often help consumers, and cautioned against a return to the days of trust-busting.
Wright is widely believed to be the leading candidate to head the commission after Trump takes office.
The Trump transition team did not immediately respond to Credit.com’s request for comment.
So Long Net Neutrality?
Even bigger changes might be coming to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), however Multichannel.com reported this weekend that Trump’s picks to head that agency — several veterans of the conservative American Enterprise Institute — have plans to eliminate the FCC’s consumer protection tasks altogether. Currently, the FCC helps consumers in dispute with telecommunications providers and sets policies, like net neutrality.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who led the charge for net neutrality and new privacy rules for broadband consumers, will vacate his spot on Inauguration Day. While Trump picked FCC transition team members with anti-net neutrality track records — one a Verizon economist, the other a former Sprint lobbyist — Wheeler said in a speech last week that overturning the commission’s rule is not a foregone conclusion. Changes would require a new rule making process, he said — and that would be a mistake.
“Tampering with the rules means taking away protections that consumers in the online world enjoy today,” Wheeler said in his speech.
While Trump transition team members Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly advocated for a streamlined FCC before, backtracking on issues like net neutrality seems less a sure thing after Trump added Republic Wireless co-founder David Morken to that transition team. As head of a small telecom company, Morken has said he is against changes that help entrenched competitors, and has a populist bent to his rhetoric.
“Traditional Republican telecom policy has favored incumbents who are heavily engaged in regulatory capture over innovators like us,” Morken told The Wall Street Journal in December.
His lack of opposition to net neutrality, in addition to that open challenge of established Republican thinking, has led some to think he might provide balance on a Trump FCC. But as with the many critical consumer issues the Trump administration will take on in the coming months, only time will tell whether populist positions or conservative leadership will win that arm-wrestling match — and how consumers will fare in their own wrestling match with corporations.
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