National Consumers League

The not-so-secret war on consumer protection


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SG_headshot_92_2017.jpgThis blog post was originally published in the Huffington Post.

While the public is laser-focused on the fate of healthcare, consumer advocates are watching with horror as Congress works to unravel, piece by piece, many long-standing consumer protections, taking actions that favor big industry over the little guy. With the backing of industry, federal legislators are attacking rules that protect seniors from ripoffs and scams and blocking agencies from using their powers to prevent illegal activity or set sensible safety standards.

Case in point: a bill that recently passed House Appropriations, pushed by the multi-billion dollar direct selling industry, essentially ties the hands of the Federal Trade Commission, preventing the agency from policing illegal pyramid schemes. Without the ability to investigate and shut down these fraudulent businesses, which target low-income and minority Americans, these notorious hucksters will run wild.

Similarly, in May, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) adopted rules to curb forced arbitration to ensure that consumers have the right to go to court instead of being forced into private arbitration controlled by businesses—a right companies already have. When a data breach at Home Depot in 2014 led to losses for banks nationwide, these banks filed a class-action lawsuit seeking compensation. Companies have the choice of taking legal action together, yet consumers are frequently blocked from exercising the same legal right when they believe that companies have wronged them.

The CFPB’s new rules will change that, but House leaders are now trying to block the CFPB rule, doing the bidding of corporate wrongdoers like Bank of America. What’s worse, the bankers’ friends in Congress are bullying the bureau’s director, Richard Cordray, and threatening to fire him despite his record of returning more than $12 billion to consumers.

Even common-sense safety rules are not immune to this assault. Take, for example, the humble table saw. These mainstays of high school shop classes and hobbyists’ workshops are responsible for more than 11 finger amputations every day and 35,000 emergency room visits annually. Earlier this year, after years of study, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) proposed a new safety standard using proven technology that would totally prevent these injuries. Rather than embrace this revolutionary development, House appropriators, at the behest of the power saw industry, attached a rider saying the CPSC cannot work on table saw safety at all! This is akin to telling the Food and Drug Administration it cannot regulate drug safety or telling the Department of Defense it can’t deploy troops. Unfortunately, industry and its allies in Congress smell blood and, with their corporate backers, no consumer protection is safe from attack.

The list of industry targets could fill a book, from rolling back broadband privacy protections, to supporting the airlines’ power grab of our air traffic control system. What’s alarming is that this unprecedented attack on consumer protections is happening out of public view. That’s too bad, because the public needs to know about this full-on assault and who is behind it. Industry is calling the shots and writing the bills, and leadership in the House and Senate is doing what they ask. The irony is that survey after survey shows that consumers actually want sensible safety and health protections, including safe products for themselves and their children.

Americans want regulators to shut down illegal financial schemes and frauds, and they expect their members of Congress to side with them, not with big corporations. That’s why groups like NCL are urging every consumer to tell Congress to back off efforts to kill the critical rules and protections that millions of us depend on every day.