Nothing to sneeze at: 111th Congress’ four major consumer reform accomplishments – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Now that the dust has settled on the 111th Congress and the new 112th Congress has been sworn in and is hard at work, it’s a good time to reflect on what the 111th accomplished for consumers. Short answer: a lot. Four major pieces of reform legislation passed the last Congress and were signed into law by President Barack Obama.

Health care reform

The first is the long overdue and hard fought health care reform legislation, the Affordable Care Act, which the Republican-led  House of Representatives is now trying to repeal. It’s unconscionable that American citizens – alone among the industrialized nations – have been without health care coverage. Those who get sick are forced to face debilitating debt and bankruptcy in order to pay their medical bills. The reforms under the ACA will begin to bring to an end some of the worst abuses of the insurance industry. The reforms will give Americans new rights and benefits, including helping more children get health coverage, ending lifetime and most annual limits on care, and giving patients access to recommended preventive services without cost-sharing. The National Consumers League will be among the many diverse groups in Washington and around the country fighting to preserve the reforms created by this landmark legislation.

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

The next big legislative feat is the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the brainchild of consumer hero and Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Warren.

The CFPB will be an independent bureau within the Federal Reserve System that will help empower consumers with the information they need to make the best financial decisions for them and their families. Created by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank Act), the CFPB will work to promote fairness and transparency for mortgages, credit cards, and other consumer financial products and services. As Warren has said all along, we need to protect consumers from the “tricks and traps” in consumer contracts – hidden fees and charges – that have driven so many consumers deeper into debt and  forced them into foreclosure. The CFPB’s mission is to “set and enforce clear, consistent rules that allow banks and other consumer financial services providers to compete on a level playing field and that let consumers see clearly the costs and features of products and services.” The CFPB is again, a long–overdue consumer protection agency that, unlike other federal financial regulatory bodies like the Federal Reserve or the Office of Thrift Supervision, will have consumer protection at the core of its mission.

Student loan reform

Next is student loan reform legislation, the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010. President Obama called it “one of the most significant investments in higher education since the G.I. Bill.” The law will eliminate private banks as “middlemen” in the loan process and save the US government about $68 billion dollars over 11 years. For students, the loans will look largely the same – same terms, same fees, same interest rates. But the savings over time will be passed along to students because the middlemen fees will be cut out, with the government loaning the money directly.

I continue to wonder how we can saddle today’s students with so much debt – sometimes over $200,000 – coming out of college and/or graduate school. It’s unconscionable to impose this crippling burden on a young person just beginning a career – this legislation is a start but we need many more ideas for lifting this burden from our college and graduate school grads.

Food safety reform

Finally, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which gives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration expanded oversight over approximately 80 percent the food supply–not including USDA-regulated meat and poultry—passed after an incredible series of twists and turns in Congress, described by Courtney Brein, our Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow at NCL, in a blog a few weeks back. As Dean of the House, Rep. John Dingell, D-MI, who worked on this food safety law for many years, put it: “This legislation has seen more procedural fits and starts than any other.” NCL cheered the enactment of this new law. There have been serious outbreaks of foodborne illness in the past few years – peanuts, spinach, and eggs, to name just a few – it has become clear that first major update of food safety laws in over seven decades was sorely needed. The bill gives the FDA mandatory recall authority, requires that food facilities implement food safety plans, and stipulates that foreign facilities importing food to the U.S. must meet the same standards.

Four major reform bills in two years that will have direct benefits for consumers. That’s an incredible accomplishment and one that is not being adequately recognized. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate President Harry Reid, and President Obama have much to be proud of and it’s time they got proper acknowledgment.