Consumer Confidential With David Lazarus
Column

Consumer advocates will converge on Congress, but don't expect GOP to see the light

Consumer advocates and lawyers will converge on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to try to convey to lawmakers — particularly those in the Republican camp — that ordinary people are getting hosed by recent decisions that tilt the playing field toward business interests.

What’s touted as Consumer Justice Lobby Day is being sponsored by the National Consumer Law Center and the National Assn. of Consumer Advocates. More than 100 consumer advocates and lawyers will meet throughout the day with lawmakers and staff members.

“The banks and financial industry have a lot more access than we do,” said Lauren Saunders, associate director of the National Consumer Law Center, a Boston-based nonprofit organization that focuses on the legal rights of low-income people. “It’s important for us to show up too.”

These have been challenging days for consumers as a Republican-controlled Congress and the nation’s first billionaire-in-chief have moved aggressively to undo safeguards put in place by the Obama administration.

Republicans say these changes will boost economic growth, create jobs and benefit the entire nation. That’s been conservative lawmakers’ mantra as they rush to pass tax cuts that the Tax Policy Center says favor the wealthy and that the Congressional Budget Office says will increase deficits by $1.7 trillion over the next decade.

Perhaps the biggest poke in the eye for consumers has been Congress passing legislation — and President Trump signing it into law — to overturn a rule from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau granting bank and credit card customers the right to join together in class-action lawsuits.

Financial firms routinely include so-called forced arbitration clauses in their contracts preventing customers from joining class actions. The CFPB said in July that blocking people from class actions denied them an effective tool in holding firms accountable for unfair or illegal practices.

Republicans wasted no time in characterizing the bureau’s rule as a slapdash measure imposed by a rogue agency. The reality, as I recently observed, is that the CFPB spent five years researching forced arbitration, including meetings with industry officials, public hearings and over 110,000 comments submitted online.

Nevertheless, Republican House members voted to repeal the rule shortly after it was issued and their Senate counterparts followed suit last month (with a tie-breaking vote cast by Vice President Mike Pence).

Trump signed the bill in a private Oval Office ceremony attended by the heads of the Consumer Bankers Assn., the Independent Community Bankers of America and the National Assn. of Federally Insured Credit Unions.

Camden Fine, president of the Independent Community Bankers of America, spoke for the industry when he said arbitration “offers better results for consumers and helps avoid frivolous class-action suits.”

In fact, studies show that arbitration tends to favor businesses and that class-action lawsuits often are the only way consumers can seek redress for relatively small amounts of money that wouldn’t be worth the hassle of resolving individually.

Also, banks aren’t giving up their own right to collectively sue. With breathtaking irony, more than a dozen business groups representing financial firms came together in September to sue the CFPB over its arbitration rule.

The bureau’s director, Richard Cordray, summed it up succinctly after Trump signed the repeal bill by saying that “this action makes it nearly impossible for ordinary people to stand up for themselves against corporate giants like Wells Fargo and Equifax.”

True. And that shows what consumer advocates are up against as they prepare to lay siege to the Capitol.

“We’re coming off a very disappointing loss for consumers with the CFPB’s arbitration rule,” acknowledged Christine Hines, legislative director for the National Assn. of Consumer Advocates.

Which raises the question: Why bother making a full-court press on a Congress that’s already made its priorities clear?

“There’s always a chance,” Hines replied.

Saunders, of the National Consumer Law Center, admitted it’s a longshot to think Republicans will suddenly realize they’ve been giving consumers short shrift.

“I think they’ll at least be polite and listen,” she said.

Hopefully lawmakers will be open-minded about some of the other issues the advocates plan to raise. For example, they’ll push to maintain funding for the Legal Services Corporation, a nonprofit group established by Congress in 1974 to provide civil legal aid to low-income Americans.

In his proposed 2018 budget, Trump calls for completely eliminating funds for the agency. A House budget plan would cut funding by 24%, while a Senate version would keep funding intact.

The advocates will call for free credit freezes in the wake of the Equifax breach, which gave hackers potential access to the personal information of more than 145 million consumers. Credit bureaus now charge about $10 for each freeze and thaw of a credit file.

They’ll also seek more protections from abusive debt collectors, and an end to collection of so-called zombie debt that’s outlasted state limits.

“These are issues that should be bipartisan,” Saunders said. “I’m hoping some Republicans will recognize that.”

She added: “We’re not just about getting things done over the next couple of months. We’re building for the future.”

Maybe Republicans will feel so guilty after their feed-the-rich tax cuts, they’ll throw the rest of us a bone with free credit freezes.

Nah, who am I kidding?

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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