Special Protections for Wall Street, No Day in Court for the Rest of Us

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Image Credit: Michael Coghlan (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Last week, some members of the House Financial Services Committee lavished praise on a piece of legislation they said would “restore due process rights to all Americans.”

“All the bill says is that if somebody wants their day in court, they should have their day in court,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.), explained, adding that “preserving the rights of Americans to defend themselves in a fair and impartial trial…is one of the most fundamental rights, and it is enshrined in our Constitution.”

Representative Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), Chair of the committee, championed the measure as well. “Every American deserves to be treated with due process,” Rep. Hensarling declared. “They ought to have the opportunity to have a trial by jury. They ought to be able to engage in full discovery. They ought to be subject to the rules of evidence.”

A listener might have thought these legislators were standing up against forced arbitration – “rip-off clauses” that big companies bury in the fine print of contracts to prevent people from suing them, even if they have broken the law.

Astoundingly and unfortunately, the legislators were actually moving in the opposite direction. They were extolling HR 3798, the so-called “Due Process Restoration Act,” which would extend special legal protections to Wall Street banks and other financial firms charged with violating federal securities law by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

This piece of legislation does nothing to restore due process to ripped-off consumers and investors. Instead, the “Due Process Restoration Act” makes it harder for the SEC to hold corporate wrongdoers accountable when they break the law.

Big banks and others charged in SEC hearings already possess several crucial legal protections that their investors and consumers lack in forced arbitration: robust opportunity for discovery, a public hearing, a trained adjudicator bound to make a ruling based in law, and – crucially – the right to two full appeal processes, including a review in federal court. Yet HR 3798 would make it harder for the SEC to prove its case and allow the accused party to unilaterally terminate the proceedings, forcing the SEC to either drop the charges or refile in federal court.

According to Professor Joseph Carcello of the University of Tennessee, giving companies this right to “choose the venue is unlikely to be in the best interest of society, and will almost certainly make it more difficult for the SEC to deter and punish securities law violations, including fraud.”  Professor Carcello further emphasized that if fairness is a concern for members of the committee, then it is more unfair for citizens to be forced into arbitration in their contracts with financial institutions.

An amendment offered by Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) threw the gap between the words and actions of HR 3798’s supporters into particularly stark relief. The amendment would have ensured that firms using forced arbitration against consumers and investors could not benefit from the bill’s special protections. Yet, in a display of staggering hypocrisy, this commonsense amendment was defeated on party lines.

Despite grandiose claims of due process, HR 3798 would only further tilt the playing field in favor of special corporate interests when it comes to battling financial fraud and corporate rip-offs.  If lawmakers truly wish to “restore due process rights to all Americans,” they should pass legislation to ban forced arbitration and support the upcoming Consumer Financial Protection Bureau rulemaking on this abusive practice.

Wall Street firms and brokers accused of breaking federal law do not need special legal protections, but the right of ordinary Americans to have their day in court very much does need defending. Lawmakers should legislate accordingly.

— Amanda Werner

Fact-checking Politifact on the Consumer Bureau

In the latest GOP Presidential debate, Carly Fiorina attacked the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), calling it an agency with “no congressional oversight.” That statement is not just “half true” as it was rated by Politifact, a fact-checking website run by the Tampa Bay Times. It’s untrue.

The CFPB, as Politifact said, does not get its funding through annual congressional appropriations. But the Bureau is a bank regulator, and not a single one of the other bank regulators – the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), or the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) – is funded that way either. And for good reason: as far back as 1864, when the OCC was created, this country has sought to bolster the independence of bank regulators by insulating them from the politically-charged congressional appropriations process.

In reaching its judgment that “the bureau has an unusually low amount of congressional oversight,” Politifact appears to have relied on two known critics of the agency, Todd J. Zywicki of George Mason University and Brenden D. Soucy, a Miami lawyer.

By consulting a wider range of authorities, Politifact would have gotten a fuller picture. Arthur Wilmarth of George Washington University Law School, for example, has described the CFPB’s powers, governance and funding arrangements as “hardly unprecedented among federal financial regulators.” Like virtually all regulators, the Consumer Bureau is subject to the many requirements of the Administrative Procedures Act. In addition, as Adam Levitin of Georgetown University Law Center pointed out to a House committee in 2011, the Bureau’s budget, unlike that of the other financial oversight agencies, is capped at a specified percentage of the Federal Reserve’s operating budget, while its decisions are uniquely subject to review and rejection by a council of other regulators.

When all the facts are taken into account, it is clearly neither true nor even half-true to characterize the CFPB as “a vast bureaucracy with no congressional oversight that’s digging through hundreds of millions of your credit records to detect fraud.” Fiorina, in making that statement, is simply repeating a false narrative developed by banks and lenders against the first and only and financial oversight agency with a mandate to put the interests of consumers ahead of the power and profits of the financial industry. By giving Fiorina credit for being even partially correct, Politifact, too, is buying into that narrative.

Lending Discrimination No More Excusable Than Other Forms of Discrimination, Wade Henderson Says

The House of Representatives is preparing to vote on a bill – H.R. 1737, the Reforming CFPB Indirect Auto Financing Guidance Act – that would make it harder for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to crack down on auto lending practices that lead to consistently higher interest rates for Black as well as Hispanic and Asian-American car buyers. Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, issued this statement in response:

“Discrimination undermines the civil rights of all Americans, whether in in voting rights, access to quality schools, or racial profiling by law enforcement. Lending discrimination is no different. When lenders redlined Black residents out of homeownership or gouged them on mortgages, we passed laws like the Fair Housing Act. But the vestiges of lending discrimination remain alive and well in the auto industry. We cannot allow auto lenders to charge Black borrowers more than Whites simply because of their skin color. A vote in support of this bill is a vote to ignore lending discrimination.”

 

 

Will Congress Endorse Discrimination in Auto Lending?

If you’re a person of color taking out a car loan, odds are you’ll pay a significantly higher interest rate than you would if you were white. Since 2013, the Consumer Bureau has begun to tackle this long-neglected, well-documented problem, both through enforcement and by issuing a guidance on fair lending law compliance for lenders working with dealerships to finance auto purchases. Congress should be praising the Bureau for its fight against auto-loan discrimination. Instead, a shameful number of members of the House voted last month to curtail the CFPB’s work in this area.

On November 18, the House passed a bill, H.R. 1737, which would invalidate the existing guidance and impose burdensome and unnecessary new procedures on any future CFPB efforts to address the issue. The final vote was 332-96, with 88 Democrats voting in favor.

AFR and our allies will do all we can to keep this bad bill from gaining traction in the Senate or being added as a policy rider to a year-end spending measure. Thus far, over 52,000 Americans have signed petitions urging Congress to reject HR 1737. (You can add your name to AFR’s petition here). And ColorOfChange, Working Families, Center for Popular Democracy and Americans for Financial Reform (AFR) delivered over 50,000 of those petitions to the offices of House Majority Leader Paul Ryan, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Representative G.K. Butterfield, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

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The Real Wolves of Wall Street

It’s hard to make a serious argument against an agency that’s returned over $11 billion to more than 25 million Americans scammed by their financial companies. Especially when that agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, enjoys broad public support across party lines for its efforts to crack down on debt-trap loans, credit card overcharges, illegal debt collection practices and discriminatory auto lending.

That’s why the big bank lobby and its allies in Congress had to contort themselves last week to justify their attempts to hamstring the bureau. Luckily for the rest of us, their farfetched talking points didn’t sway the bureau’s defenders in Congress, and their attack fell flat.

The House Financial Services Committee was considering legislation to change the way the CFPB is led, putting it under a five-member commission – a recipe for partisan gridlock and increased industry influence – instead of a single director. The White House, along with more than 75 consumer groups, spoke out against the move. The major architects of financial reform, including Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., as well as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, also a Massachusetts Democrat, and former Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., made it clear that they too opposed it.

While the bill ended up passing, as expected, it did so essentially along party lines. Only two Democrats, Reps. David Scott of Georgia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, voted in favor with all the committee’s Republicans – despite a major effort by Wall Street lobbyists. For weeks, they’d been telling reporters about a supposed wave of mounting support for their “bipartisan” measure, getting congressional allies like Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., to spread the word in the press.

The very obvious intent of their proposal is to impede the consumer bureau’s ability to fight against abusive financial practices. To distract attention from this inconvenient truth, the bill’s defenders resorted to scaremongering. House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling of Texas equated single-director leadership with North Korea, while Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., called it “the Stalin model.” Both failed to mention that it was Republicans who called for a single director to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, created in 2008, or that another bank regulator, the Office of Comptroller of the Currency, has functioned with a single director since 1863 with no calls from Congress to change it.

In the effort to gain support beyond the ranks of the usual Wall Street-friendly suspects, a few of the bill’s proponents even professed to be looking out for consumers’ interests to protect them from a hypothetical weak consumer bureau director appointed by a hypothetical future president. No actual consumer advocates have ever expressed such a concern, however: They know that an effective director some of the time is far better than a milquetoast commission all of the time.

The real impetus for this legislation comes, very obviously, from the financial industry lobby, which wants the change because it will make it easier for banks, payday lenders and debt collectors to engage in unfair, deceptive and abusive practices. And the industry is willing to spend huge amounts of campaign and lobbying money to get its way.

In 2010, Wall Street expended over $1 million a day seeking to block reforms, including the creation of the consumer bureau. That extraordinary rate of spending has continued, according to an Americans for Financial Reform report that covered the 2014 election cycle. A more recent report from the consumer advocacy organization Allied Progress shows that eight members of the House Financial Services Committee received donations from the payday lending industry within weeks of endorsing a previous attempt to subject the consumer bureau to rule by commission.

Last week, six major banking industry lobbyists did us all a favor by signing their names to a joint op-edopenly advocating for the commission bill. They claimed that they, too, were worried about what might happen, under continued single-director leadership, to “the [consumer bureau]’s work over the past four years.” Hearing that absurd argument from the leaders of trade associations that have opposed the bureau on issue after issue over the past four years made it clearer than ever that the push for a commission is just another piece of the industry’s strategy to roll back reform and revert to the unregulated havoc that brought us the financial crisis.

Warren put it best, telling The Huffington Post, “Give me a break – this is the wolves saying all they care about is Grandma.”

Of course, they won’t give us a break. The wolves of Wall Street will keep on trying to obstruct the consumer bureau’s important work in any way they think they can. But now more people will understand what’s at stake, and we can expect more people in and out of Congress to speak out and fight hard when this bill moves to the House floor and if and when it advances any further.

— Jim Lardner

Originally published on USNews.com