Happy 6th Birthday, CFPB! – National Consumers League

byoung-92.jpgWith all the doom and gloom coming out of Washington these days, it is easy to miss the victories consumers have earned. Most notably, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) turned 6 last Friday! In that time, defenders of the CFPB have helped it ward off countless attacks from Wall Street and allowed the agency to focus on its mission of protecting consumers from predatory lenders and unethical financial industry practices. Last week was no exception. After years of study, deliberation, and research, the CFPB followed through with its Congressional mandate under the Dodd-Frank Act by passing rules to rein in the abusive practice of forced arbitration in financial contracts. Thanks to this rule, consumers will be protected from “rip off clauses” hidden in financial contracts designed to deny Americans their day in court. 

This is a huge achievement, and one that we have been fighting to win for many years. This rule will protect consumers who utilize financial products like credit cards, auto leases, check cashing services and retail banking by:

1. Preventing banks from barring consumers from joining class actions; and

2. Adding transparency to the arbitration process, by publishing arbitration claims and outcomes.

While the CFPB’s rule does not outlaw forced arbitration completely, allowing consumers to form class actions is nonetheless a huge victory. Unfortunately, many companies know that most consumers are unlikely to go through the hassle of individual arbitration for small offenses. This is perhaps best evidenced by a finding in the CFPB’s 3 year arbitration study, which showed that in the course of the study, only 25 consumers pursued a claim of $1,000 or less through arbitration. The net result of this phenomenon is that bad actors have been able to pocket billions in ill gotten gains wrongfully obtained from consumers, knowing that they are safe from legal action as long as consumers are prohibited from joining together to seek justice.

While allowing consumers to come together to form class actions will help them get their day in court, adding transparency to the opaque process of arbitration will prevent them from becoming victims in the first place. After the CFPB issued its $185 million enforcement action against Wells Fargo for committing approximately 3.5 million counts of identity theft, news came out that harmed consumers have been trying to sue Wells Fargo for this very practice since 2013. However, due to these “rip off clauses” that Wells Fargo buried deep in the fine print of their contracts, consumers were not only prevented from suing, but also from telling anyone about Wells Fargo’s shady actions. This lack of transparency allowed Wells Fargo to continue this practice for an additional three years. If this new rule were to be enforced, bad acts like this wouldn’t be allowed to happen again.

The Wells Fargo example shows the critical importance of transparency in our legal system. It also rebuts a key industry argument in favor of forced arbitration. Wall Street executives often argue that arbitration saves consumers money and that class actions only benefit plaintiffs’ lawyers. In the Wells Fargo example, of the millions of account frauds, only 215 consumers pursued forced arbitration claims since 2009. Of those 215 claims, only 7 consumers received a settlement from Wells Fargo in spite of the clear evidence of wrongdoing by the bank. This example illustrates how arbitrators, who depend on the bank for repeat business, too often side against the consumer.

This is one reason why Wall Street and their allies in Congress are falling over themselves to try to roll back this important consumer protection. Wall Street knows that forced arbitration allows them to operate above the law. Rip off clauses snuck into the fine print of contracts allow banks to charge consumers illegal fees knowing full well that without the right to form a class action, consumers have no cost-effective way to fight back.

While Wall Street and their allies in Congress know that this rule will greatly diminish their ability to get away with fraud, consumers of all political stripes support this protection. The Pew Charitable Trusts found that 90 percent of consumers want their right to a class action restored and a recent poll found that a majority of both Republicans, Democrats, and Independents all support the implementation of CFPB’s arbitration rule. 

In 2008, Congress specifically instructed the CFPB to look into the practice of forced arbitration and take action to curtail the practice if necessary. This week, the CFPB did just that. However, in spite of all the research and evidence that documents the abuse of this practice, many members of Congress wish to undo the work of the CFPB and remove the protections that an overwhelming majority of Americans support. We do not take these threats lightly. At NCL, we will continue to do all we can to ensure that these protections are not taken away from consumers by members of Congress more loyal to Wall Street than the citizens who elected them.

Gorsuch’s first opinion: Blame definitions, not practice – National Consumers League

sierra92.jpgWritten by NCL Intern Sierra Hatfield

Justice Neil Gorsuch’s first Supreme Court opinion in Henson v. Santander illustrates the inability of the current Court to protect the changing needs and liberties of the American people. Gorsuch’s opinion not only fails to interpret what Congress was trying to stop, but in doing so, it has provided countless companies the legal opportunity to harass debtors.

The complaint in Henson v. Santander alleges that Santander, a Spanish bank, bought defaulted loans from CitiFinancial Auto and then attempted to collect on those loans in a manner that violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) of 1977. Santander was accused of harassing and intimidating the debtors, leading to a lawsuit. But Santander argued that it is excluded from the FDCPA because it bought the debts and was collecting for itself – not a third party.

What will come to be known as the “Santander defense” is found in the loophole Gorsuch has now written into precedent. That loophole was created out of the Court’s interpretation of the definition of “debt collector,” which, according to the FDCPA, is a term including anyone who “regularly collects or attempts to collect…debts owed or due…another.”  Santander’s defense states that because it is collecting money for itself and not for “another,” they are not “debt collectors” and therefore exempt. Apparently, the Court agrees, even though Santander is deploying the same forms of harassment that are prohibited by the FDCPA.

But when Congress wrote this definition forty years ago, there was not a multibillion-dollar industry created by debt buyers like Santander. These entities purchase defaulted debt for almost nothing and then harass the debtors for money. According to the Supreme Court, the question is not whether these entities are unlawfully badgering people for money, but who they serve while doing so. If they are collecting for themselves, it’s fine – but if it’s for someone else, “that’s just taking it too far.”

The Court focuses on three major principles in its ruling: definition of a debt collector, Congress’ role in law, and grammar. We will focus on the first two. 

The statutory definition of a debt collector is much longer than the Court would have you believe, with several commas and clauses. But even with the simplified version the Court provided us, we should be asking ourselves – why do they spend so much time on the words “debts owed or due…another” while ignoring the words “regularly collects or attempts to collect”? Gorsuch writes in his opinion that it is the fault of the parties involved for not raising the issue more robustly. But by doing so, the Court has ignored the purpose of the FDCPA and consequently failed to protect consumers from debt buyers and more. 

Gorsuch’s first words read, “Disruptive dinnertime calls, downright deceit, and more besides drew Congress’s eye to the debt collection industry.”  This opening is comical. Gorsuch admits that Congress’s purpose in writing the FDCPA was to protect debtors from harassment that is commonplace with debt collectors. But instead of arguing the intent of the law – which would militate strongly against Santander’s practices – the Court hides behind definitions.

There are several ways to interpret a law. Gorsuch is a so-called “textualist”, as illustrated by his adherence to statutory text. But I argue that a better way of looking at this law would have been through the lens of a “living document.” This is a common approach to the U.S. Constitution. When viewing the Constitution as a living document, it has the ability to change and adapt to modern practices.

Gorsuch’s response to this would be that it is not the Supreme Court’s job to amend laws by Congress. It is Congress’s job to create and amend, and it is the Court’s job to interpret and apply. But when such a strong focus is placed on one clause that favors his interpretation of the statute, and not another, which would favor consumers, one can’t help but feel as though some cherry picking occurred. 

The fatal flaw in Gorsuch’ arguments – typical of conservative jurists – is to ask Congress to step in and correct the Court’s interpretation. Well, he knows that this Congress won’t take those steps. And thus his decision will stand and consumers will be the for worse for it, especially lower income consumers who bear the brunt of these rapacious debt collection agencies and their employees disrupting people day and night, even those who may have had their debts legally discharged. 

But even so, all the blame cannot be placed on Gorsuch. He is the author of an opinion to which the other Justices unfortunately agreed was a correct interpretation of the law. NCL is disappointed that the Supreme Court is now allowing consumers to be subjected to debt collection practices that were once illegal, and we join our consumer advocacy colleagues, several of whom filed Amicus Curiae briefs, in disagreeing mightily with this very unfortunate outcome

Ad-Blocking: Is it a dirty word or good security practice? – National Consumers League

Ad blocking is a dirty word for many in the online publishing and advertising industries. The head of one of the largest industry associations famously called a AdBlock Plus, one of the biggest ad blocker software companies an “unethical, immoral, mendacious coven of techie wannabes.”Why the hate? Unsurprisingly, the answer comes down to money. As their name suggests, ad blocking technology allows Web users (i.e. you and me) to prevent advertisements from appearing in desktop and mobile browsers. When consumers don’t see ads online, websites don’t make as much money, which makes it harder to produce the content that draws users in the first place. In the publishing industry’s nightmares, this threatens to create a vicious cycle that leads to the end of free content on the Web.

The advertising industry’s heartburn about ad blockers is driven by the explosive growth of the technology. As of December 2016, nearly one in five (18 percent) Web users in the United States had an ad blocker installed on their browser. In other countries, the use of ad blockers is far higher. For example, 58 percent of Web users in Indonesia and 29 percent of German users use ad blockers. Globally, the number of devices using ad blocking software grew by 142 million from 2015-2016, a trend which shows no signs of slowing, particularly on mobile devices.

That said, there are efforts to address the need for consumers to have ad blockers installed in the first place. For example, on June 1 Google confirmed reports that it plans to have its Chrome browser automatically block ads that do not conform to advertising standards published by the Coalition for Better Ads. That standard prohibits egregious ads that do things like autoplay videos, take up too much screen real estate, or make users wait to see content while an ad displays.

Given Google’s 53 percent market share, this announcement has the potential to significantly improve consumers’ data security. That’s because insecure ads can pose a significant malware threat to users. A May 2015 study by Google, the University of California, Berkeley and University of California, Santa Barbara found that tens of millions of visitors to Google’s services had unwanted adware installed on their computer. Within that group, half had at least two, and nearly one-third of users had at least four such programs infecting their machines. A similar study by security firm Namogoo found that 15-30 percent of e-commerce website visitors were infected with malware that causes them to view injected ads, malicious links, and fraudulent spyware on otherwise legitimate sites.

Given these threats, moving ad-blocking into the mainstream could have a significantly positive impact on consumers’ vulnerability to malware. By dramatically increasing the number of users with ad-blocking technology on their browsers, the pressure on the worst offenders in the advertising ecosystem to clean up their acts in increased. When users see fewer bad ads, it increases user trust in online advertising overall. In the long term and somewhat counterintuitively, this may actually reduce the need for users to rely on third-party ad blockers to help reduce their data security risk.

The New York Times has called the growth of ad blocking an “existential threat” to the $50 billion online advertising industry. It is therefore serendipitous that the ultimate solution to the war over ad blocking may be more, not less ad blocking.

Forced marriage still a reality in the U.S. – National Consumers League

Female Genital MutiliationI learned recently about something I had naively thought was not an America problem: that forced marriage of girls as young as 10 or 11 years old to much older men is happening in the United States. The National Consumers League (NCL) works to protect children from child labor and child marriage. 

The connection between early marriage and child labor is that girls get sold to husbands who use and often abuse them as domestics; the girls are expected to cook, clean, wash clothes, fetch water, and bear and care for children.

Internationally, we support such movements as “Girls Not Brides,” which fights the scourge of child marriage in Africa and around the globe. However, recently Nicolas Kristof in the New York Times highlighted the plight of a young American girl, Sherry Johnson, who was raped at nine years old, became pregnant in Florida as part of an evangelical community, and was forced to marry at the age of 11 her 20-year-old rapist.

Even before she married, Johnson gave birth to a daughter at the age of 10. Unchained At Last is an American advocacy group that tracks child marriage. It was founded by advocate Fraidy Reiss, who gave a recent interview to National Public Radio, herself grew up in the Ultra Orthodox Jewish community under laws that require consent from husbands before a woman can divorce. Her group estimates that over a decade, 250,000 girls as young as 10 have been forced to marry in the US. Twenty-seven states don’t enforce a minimum age for child marriage.

I was astonished to learn of the plight of these girls. Just like in less developed countries, girls are sold to older men as brides at 10- and 11-years-old in some part of the United States. Many of them become pregnant long before it’s safe for them to bear children. Because so many states have no minimum age for marriage, girls in aren’t protected if their parents force them to marry or sell them to an older man. Leaders of the movement to get states to require girls to be 18 before they are allowed to marry say it’s far more difficult than they predicted to get these laws passed across all 50 states.

In June, Texas—the state with the nation’s second highest child-marriage rate—banned the practice, prohibiting marriage to individuals under 18 unless they are 16 or 17 AND are an emancipated minor (and therefore considered to be adults). Between 2000 and 2014, nearly 40,000 minors were married in Texas, including girls as young as 12.

“Girls who marry before age 19 are 50 percent more likely to drop out of high school than their peers and four times less likely to finish college,” noted reporter Christina Cauterucci, who has written about the child marriage epidemic. “They experience higher rates of psychiatric disorders and face rates of intimate-partner violence nearly three times higher than the U.S. average.”

The National Consumers League supports a ban on marriage for people under 18 unless they are emancipated minors. This broad based policy would eliminate many forced marriages involving children while protecting them from the risks to their mental, physical and emotional well-being associated with early marriage.

Female genital mutilation still an atrocious crime in the U.S. – National Consumers League

SG_HEADSHOT.jpgFemale genital mutilation, which is practiced widely in Africa, the Middle East, Pakistan, and India, turns out to be in evidence here in the U.S. as well. This tragic fact is not known by many people. Apparently, in some parts of the U.S. where immigrants from those parts of the world reside, U.S. trained doctors have attempted to perform surgeries on young girls. The World Health Organization (WHO) regards female genital cutting as a violation of human rights. The practice involves cutting of female genitalia and often results in infections and lifelong suffering. 

In the past year in Michigan, two doctors from a small Shiite Muslim sect were believed to have arranged cutting of up to 100 girls, according to prosecutors.

The girls are young, some even around 6-years-old. An American journalist who was herself cut at a young age in the U.S., Tasneen Raja, has decided to write about this terrible practice and along with other American women have started a movement to blow the doors open and condemn what has apparently been happening even in the U.S. for years, but has been shrouded in secrecy.

In 1996, female genital mutilation was banned in the United State. And in 2013, traveling to another country for cutting became illegal. Michigan has begun petitions to terminate custodial rights of the parents who have allowed their daughters to undergo this mutilation. The doctors themselves are either under house arrest or behind bars. One of the doctors received her medical degree at Johns Hopkins. 

Nazia Mirza of Texas, herself a young victim, is one of the leaders of the movement. She explained in the New York Times article cited above that the justification for the practice is to curb sexual promiscuity or preserve tradition. She was told she needed to do this in order to get married. It’s shocking that American trained doctors are still engaging in this criminal, misogynist, and violent practice against girls. NCL has long championed the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls. These cases grab our attention and give us cause to renew our call that laws against such barbaric practices be enforced and violators punished to the full extent of the law.  

Senate Republicans try their hand at nixing the Affordable Care Act – National Consumers League

j_johnson92.jpgWill Republicans’ third attempt to get rid of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) finally be a charm? Well, those in the Senate are doing everything they can to see to it. Following weeks of closed door wheeling and dealing, the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017 (BCRA) has emerged from the Senate as the latest piece of proposed legislation to repeal and replace the ACA. Despite its name, there’s not much about this bill that’s “better”—at least not for the bulk of Americans. 

The BCRA is nothing short of a broken promise to the American people to (1) improve upon the shortcomings of the House legislation, and (2) ensure affordable healthcare for all.  On the contrary, this bill proposes to slash Medicaid funding even deeper than the House bill, defund Planned Parenthood, phase out the Essential Health Benefits that guarantee that every plan offers comprehensive health coverage, significantly weaken consumer health protections, and ultimately kick 22 million Americans off their health insurance. Special interests and tax cuts for the wealthy are prioritized above quality, affordable coverage, and our country’s most vulnerable populations are left with even narrower access to the care they need. Furthermore, this terrible policy is accompanied by even worse politics.

Like so much in our current political environment, the process of this bill, from start to finish, is unprecedented. Whereas passage of the ACA was preceded by nearly 15 months of debate, public hearings, and consideration of dozens of Republican amendments, the BRCA was crafted by an exclusive committee of 13 Republican lawmakers in virtual secrecy without input from the public or even the wider Senate. To add insult to injury, Senate Republicans led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) have done everything they can to rush this legislation through Congress without adequate review, originally aiming to bring the bill to the floor mere days after releasing the text to the public. A bill of this magnitude—one that affects millions of Americans and represents an overhaul to one-sixth of the American economy—should not be a pawn in a partisan political game, but rather deserves the utmost transparency and rigorous evaluation. After all, it was Mitch McConnell himself, who in 2009 said, “Fast-tracking a major legislative overhaul such as healthcare reform…without the benefit of a full and transparent debate does a disservice to the American people.” Senator McConnell, I couldn’t agree with you more.

Nonetheless, there is a break in the clouds—Senator McConnell was forced to postpone voting on the BRCA as the GOP could not coalesce around the legislation before the July 4 Congressional recess. Like the House, many Republicans in the Senate are having a hard time reconciling this healthcare overhaul—some believing the bill goes too far, and others thinking the bill doesn’t go far enough. Many moderate senators, particularly those in Medicaid expansion states and states suffering from the opioid epidemic, are facing immense pressure and scrutiny from health advocates and constituents alike, and increasing visibility around the staggering consequences of the BCRA, compounded by the release of a dismal Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score have certainly made the job of selling this bill to the American public significantly harder.

Though the July 4 recess has temporarily sent our senators home, far away from Capitol Hill, it is important to note that just because we may not be hearing anything, does not mean nothing is happening. Senate Republicans have a few more tricks up their sleeve in the form of federal dollars that might entice senators who are on the fence about the bill to get on board. One of the ideas being touted to make the bill more palatable is the addition of a $45 billion opioid addiction treatment fund to support states suffering from the opioid crisis. However, given the massive cuts to insurance coverage that the BCRA proposes, this funding would still prove to be inadequate as people won’t be able to access treatment that they can’t pay for. While it is uncertain whether moderate Republican senators will see this funding as an adequate remedy to their concerns, another way forward might even be repealing the ACA without a replacement. Despite its unpopularity with the American people, President Trump recently called on the GOP senators to repeal the ACA immediately if they cannot agree on a replacement soon. However, such a risky political move may be a gamble Senate Republicans aren’t willing to take.

So while we wait to see what’s next, what can YOU do?

The best thing you can do is continue to engage your senators. Call them. Email them. Tweet them. SEIU’s Healthcare Security Hotline (866-426-2631) will connect you with a Republican Member of Congress based on your zip code. Let them know that passing a bill that causes millions of Americans to lose health insurance or pay more money for less care is not only reckless, but unacceptable. In this critical stretch, it is more important now than ever to take a stand. Never forget that the power to effect change is always with the American people and your voice matters. It is you— the patients, consumers, Americans—that we at the National Consumers League fight for and we will continue to stand with you in these efforts to protect our care. 

School lunches crucial for growing kids – National Consumers League

Students who are hungry or malnourished have trouble concentrating and learning. In fact, students who get healthier meals show a 4 percent improvement in test scores, according to Dr. Michael Anderson, associate professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Berkeley. Anderson found that “students at schools that contract with a healthy school lunch vendor score higher on CA state achievement tests, with larger test score increases for students who are eligible for reduced price or free school lunches.”

Indeed, Congress recognized the value of a nutritious meal  when it enacted in 2010 the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, spurred by First Lady Michelle Obama’s advocacy. In passing that Act, Congress noted that not only did children need regular meals but that healthier choices were better for children’s learning and cognition. So not only are more kids getting food, but the meals are healthier and include fruits and vegetables. As the USDA noted on its website:

Improving child nutrition is the focal point of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The legislation authorizes funding and sets policy for USDA’s core child nutrition programs: the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), the Summer Food Service Program, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act allows USDA, for the first time in over 30 years, opportunity to make real reforms to the school lunch and breakfast programs by improving the critical nutrition and hunger safety net for millions of children. 

But under Republican leadership, the House of Representatives, and now USDA Secretary Sonny Purdue, we may be taking steps backward. Perdue wants to roll back rules that required schools to reduce sodium content in meals and offer more whole grains.  In his rollback plan, Purdue is also raising the allowed fat content in flavored milk from fat-free to 1 percent. The Berkeley team led by Anderson has found that diets high in trans and saturated fats – often found in high sodium foods or highly processed foods – have a negative impact on learning and memory. Some may argue that students simply won’t eat fruits or vegetables in defense of rolling back the healthier meals. However, three large studies by Pew Charitable Trusts found that food waste – an issue NCL is deeply involved in – actually declined in 12 Connecticut schools when better nutrition rules were in place.

Making healthier foods more convenient for students decreased consumption of unhealthy foods by 28 percent. Simply moving the salad bar from a corner of the lunchroom to the center increased sale of these vegetables and fruits. In her recent column in the New York Times, columnist Jane Brody noted that, “offering students a choice between two vegetable options and having them pay cash for unhealthy items like desserts and soft drinks … may enhance consumption of healthier foods without reducing revenue or participation in school lunch programs. While the studies are not conclusive, they suggest that with a few simple steps, schools may have an impact on the foods students eat.”

School nutrition programs are helping kids across the country adopt healthier eating habits and become better learners. The proof is ample. Why go backwards now? NCL calls on USDA Secretary Perdue to resist industry pressure to reverse these promising trends in school lunch and other feeding programs for children.

In defense of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – National Consumers League

In its short tenure, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), under Director Richard Cordray has done an excellent job  of preventing consumers from harm and helping wronged consumers get the recourse they deserve. The American people have seen the great work the Bureau has accomplished, and it is not surprising that the CFPB enjoys support from both sides of the aisle. Unfortunately, given the success of the CFPB as a consumer watchdog, it is also not too surprising to see the very industries and actors the CFPB has been charged to regulate, amass support for its weakening or even outright dismantling in Congress. 

Earlier this month, the House of Representatives passed the Financial CHOICE Act, the first step in the latest effort to dismantle one of the most successful consumer protection agencies in America’s history. Given the amount of rhetoric from the CFPB’s detractors, it’s worth setting the record straight about the history, structure, and success of the agency.

In 2008, the United States experienced the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. As the dust settled, there was a much-needed examination of factors contributing to the collapse. One of the things we learned was that consumers were often preyed upon or tricked into predatory loans.

Predatory lenders, including sketchy mortgage companies, payday and car title loan companies, and “no credit needed” car dealerships helped create an environment where consumers could become ensnared in an inescapable cycle of debt. Another cause of the crisis was bureaucratic paralysis due to too many agencies sharing consumer protection responsibilities. As a result, agencies often felt they did not have the authority to protect consumers from financial predators.This created an environment where unsavory lenders were emboldened to engage in loan shark tactics. Absent strong consumer protections, when the stock market crashed, many Americans had no choice but to default on their loans, making the crisis worse. In the wake of trillions of dollars in losses, the American people vowed to never allow such a situation to happen again.

The ensuing wave of consumer and policymaker revulsion coalesced in the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. By any objective measures, the CFPB has been a runaway success in its mission to protect and empower consumers. So far, the CFPB has returned almost $12 billion to nearly 29 million wronged consumers. Consumers at Bank of America, Citibank, and JPMorgan Chase received $1.7 billion in refunds after they were charged for needless and unwanted services. Likewise, it was the CFPB that investigated and provided $100 million in financial relief to consumers when Wells Fargo defrauded its customers.

While the CFPB has had many big wins for consumers, it has also become a leader in mediation between harmed consumers and lenders. Since its formation, the CFPB, has collected over 1 million complaints. After collecting each complaint, the CFPB will work with the consumer to provide a resolution, typically within 15 days. The CFPB then takes that complaint information and puts it into a searchable database. This database allows consumers, government agencies, and advocates to identify emerging trends and work with industry and policymakers to stop harmful practices.

The CFPB has also been incredibly effective at preventing consumers from becoming victims in the first place. For instance, the CFPB created rules to prevent loan-shark style payday and car-title lenders from sucking consumers into unmanageable debt spirals. Likewise, the Bureau severely limited the prevalence of last dollar scams, which prey on consumers who are on the verge of bankruptcy. The CFPB has also been active in helping consumers navigate large, once-in-a-lifetime purchases like home mortgages. A few years back, the Bureau created rules ending “booby trapped mortgages.” The CFPB added protections that forced lenders to seriously consider a borrower’s ability to repay a loan, as well as a requirement to provide consumers with “know before you owe” disclosures that inform homebuyers how much they need to budget for their mortgage before they sign on the dotted line. It is because of these initiatives that home buyers have a much better understanding of how much they will end up paying.

Thanks to these and other successes, it is no wonder that an overwhelming majority of Americans (even a majority of Trump supporters) approve of the work the CFPB is doing and do not support efforts to weaken the agency. Unfortunately, the CFPB’s consumer protection success has created powerful enemies in the banking and financial services industry.

Opponents of the CFPB, emboldened by the results of the 2016 elections, are challenging the very structure that made it successful, starting with its funding source. The CFPB was created to be independent of the highly politicized appropriations process in Congress. Similar agencies including the Federal Reserve, Comptroller of the Currency, and FDIC are also funded independent of the appropriation process for the same reason. The creators of these financial institutions understood the importance of insulating critical financial protection agencies from the pressure of politics.

The CFPB’s detractors also argue that the agency is not accountable, which is simply not true. The CFPB is accountable to the Financial Stability Oversight Council, which has the authority to veto the Bureau’s rules. In addition, the CFPB reports twice a year to Congress and is accountable to the Federal Reserve’s Inspector General, as well as the Government Accountability Office. All of these agencies have conducted audits of the CFPB on numerous occasions. Detractors of the CFPB wish to either undermine the bureau’s ability to receive funds or splinter the agency’s leadership structure.

These baseless attacks must not be allowed to go on unchecked. The work the CFPB does is too important to let unscrupulous lenders dismantle it with anti-consumer legislation like the Financial CHOICE Act. As this bill progresses to the Senate for consideration, rest assured, this is an issue we take very seriously at NCL, and we will not rest until we have done everything we can to prevent the dismantling of the CFPB.

Counting calories? New lawsuit will make restaurants show you the stats – National Consumers League

Peter Lehner is Senior Strategic Advisor at Earthjustice. He directs the sustainable food and farming program, developing strategies to reduce health, environmental, and climate harms from production of our food and to promote a more environmentally sound agricultural system.

How many calories are in a burger with a side of onion rings? About 80 percent of Americans would like to know, and food retailers were supposed to start telling them—until the Trump administration decided to allow the industry to delay another year.

Yesterday, we pushed back. Earthjustice, on behalf of the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the National Consumers League, is now challenging this illegal delay in court.

In 2014, the FDA announced that chain restaurants, supermarkets, convenience stores and similar food retailers would need to make calorie counts and other nutritional information available to consumers, and gave the industry one year to comply.  Since then, the deadline for compliance has been delayed three times. Meanwhile, several cities and counties instituted their own nutrition labeling requirements, so even the National Restaurant Association supported the move to a uniform, national standard. Yet, one day before the rule was to become enforceable in May, the Trump administration arbitrarily—and illegally—delayed it for another year.

More wait equals more weight. Allowing industry to keep consumers in the dark about nutritional information contributes to the obesity epidemic in America.

Two-thirds of U.S. adults and one-third of U.S. children are overweight or obese, and eating out is a significant factor in this health crisis. On average, Americans eat one-third of their calories away from home, and studies show that people tend to consume more calories and saturated fat—but fewer fruits and whole grains—when eating out. In particular, children typically consume almost 55 percent more  calories when they eat a meal at a restaurant compared to a meal at home.

Part of this unhealthy pattern is due to a lack of information. Not many people would realize (without consulting a company’s website) that Applebee’s Spinach and Artichoke Dip appetizer has 960 calories, more than twice as many calories as the Chicken Wonton Tacos appetizer (460 calories); or that a chocolate chip muffin from Whole Foods Market has 920 calories—nearly twice as many calories as a blueberry scone and almost half of a person’s suggested daily caloric intake. Even professional dieticians, when asked to estimate the calorie count of the previously mentioned burger with onion rings, underestimated by almost half.  (They guessed 865 calories—the real answer was 1550.)

Calories aren’t the only concern. Few would guess that some chain restaurant entrees have more than two-and-a-half times the daily maximum amount of sodium recommended for healthy adults. People with high blood pressure need to watch their sodium intake, while those with high cholesterol or heart disease are instructed to consume less saturated fat.  Many people with diabetes need to monitor their carbohydrate consumption to administer proper insulin dosages, and the federal government advises that we all cut back on saturated and trans fats, added sugars and sodium.  But without access to nutrition information, following such health guidelines is nearly impossible when eating out.

“Knowledge is power, and studies show that when consumers have nutrition information available, they use it—purchasing 150 fewer calories, on average, when this information is displayed.”

Knowledge is power, and studies show that when consumers have nutrition information available, they use it—purchasing 150 fewer calories, on average, when this information is displayed. The total calories purchased by New York City Starbucks customers decreased by 6 percent after a local menu labeling policy took effect. Considering that a relatively small energy imbalance can, over time, result in obesity, these differences are critical. Even the FDA concluded that a uniform, national nutrition labeling requirement could save between $3.7 and $10.7 billion over 20 years.

Research also shows us that when restaurants have to be more transparent about what’s in their food, they start to offer healthier options. In King County, Washington, chain restaurants decreased the calorie content of their entrée items by an average of 41 calories each after a local law requiring nutrition labeling took effect. Another study found that the number of healthier menu items increased from 13 to 20 percent at fast-food chains subject to nutrition labeling requirements.

There’s an environmental benefit to nutrition labels as well. By encouraging smaller portions, nutrition labeling can help reduce the amount of food waste in landfills, which release climate-polluting methane gas and also contribute to air and water pollution. Since 40 percent of food in the United States ends up in landfills — much of it from restaurants — reducing this food waste can have significant environmental benefits.

Delaying the labeling requirement one day before it was supposed to become enforceable, and without an opportunity for public comment in advance, is illegal. By denying the public access to vital health information, the Trump FDA is once again taking the side of big business over the public’s right to know. We are living in the age of big data, where every aspect of our lives can be measured in excruciating detail. We can count the number of steps we take and the number of minutes we sleep—shouldn’t we have basic health information about our food?

Happy Mother’s Day 2017 – National Consumers League

2017 marks the centennial of women being allowed to serve as Members in Congress. Jeanette Rankin of Montana was the first woman elected to serve in the House of Representative in 1916 and again in 1940. To commemorate this august celebration, the House of Representatives’ historian is featuring a special exhibit of oral histories, which you can check out here if you aren’t lucky enough to be able to see it in person.

With Mother’s Day coming up this Sunday, it’s a good time to look at the considerable progress women have achieved—and also to grapple with the depressing setbacks women have faced recently. As a New York Times story this week pointed out, in the progress column, there are now 21 women in the Senate. No, it’s not half, as it should be, but it’s still progress for what is a very powerful post in American politics.

But the setbacks abound. The House just passed the Affordable Care Act repeal and replace legislation, and in so doing, removed the required coverage for pregnancy and maternity care. The deal was negotiated by 13 Republican men. The Senate’s health care team, established by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), includes not a single woman.

Although female Republican senators number only five, they include Susan Collins (R-ME), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV)—all three of whom are highly respected, very experienced, and have special expertise on health care. The New York Times piece noted how little power—compared with their 16 Democratic female counterparts in the Senate—those GOP female Representatives have.

Then there was the House repeal and replace debates that led up to the vote, which featured Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) demanding to know why men should have to pay for prenatal care–nevermind the fact that the ACA’s requirement that women have no cost access to contraception has driven down the rate of abortion and unwanted pregnancies. And yet, President Trump’s new HHS Secretary Tom Price, a doctor himself, has said repeatedly that no women has been denied access to contraception because of cost. What a shockingly false and ignorant statement!

So Happy Mother’s Day to women across the country! We may have 21 female members of the Senate, but we still have a very long ways to go. We have a Secretary of HHS who doesn’t believe women should have access to contraception or abortion. We have a new woman appointed to oversee Title X programs—great! But she also happens to be a woman who believes birth control should be between a woman, her husband, and God. Call me naïve, but I thought by 2017 women would have gained far more power, respect, and security than recent events demonstrate.