In the wake of the Equifax security breach, Wells Fargo customer abuses, and other Wall Street ripoffs, Senate Republicans could have responded by moving to help consumers fight back. Instead, Republicans in Congress inexplicably did the opposite, pushing for legislation to tilt the scales in favor of powerful corporations and tie consumers’ hands when they’re victimized by corporate wrongdoing. They even went the extra mile for Wall Street, dragging in Vice President Mike Pence to cast the tie-breaking vote after two Republicans sided with Democrats against the proposal.
The Republican scheme rolls back a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) rule that blocked financial institutions from forcing customers to agree to arbitration clauses. Those clauses, buried in the finest print when you apply for a new credit card or switch bank accounts, protect companies—at the expense of consumers—from class-action lawsuits. The outrageous result is consumers will once again be forced to sign away their rights to their greatest power against corporate corruption—the ability to band together to fight wrongdoing.
Overturning this consumer protection rule from the agency charged with protecting consumers is a clear signal that Republicans in Congress are looking out for their campaign donors’ interests, not the needs of everyday Americans.
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Among the more recent examples of this are taxpayer-funded private plane rides to visit donors, strong-arming independent agencies into propping up dying industries to raise utility bills for consumers, and questionable contracts to rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid. Simply put, this approach flies in the face of what consumers need: more ways to protect themselves against corruption, not fewer.
In the wake of the Equifax breach, one step in the opposite—and right—direction is to make credit freezes free for all Americans. My Free Credit Freeze Act would provide credit protections free of charge to all Americans, including those whose personally identifiable and credit card information was exposed in the Equifax data breach. I introduced the bill in September after it became clear that the millions of Americans affected by the Equifax data breach were not getting the response from the company that such a blatant disregard for cyber safety warranted.
As ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee I sent a letter with Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to Equifax asking about implications this breach could have on taxpayer fraud and identity theft. We also requested information on what the company is doing to mitigate harm to the estimated 143 million people impacted. Those questions have not been fully answered.
I’ve long fought for greater consumer protections, and an end to the use of forced arbitration in many areas. The history on this issue couldn’t be clearer: Large companies use forced arbitration to stop valid legal claims from going forward. It lets companies off the hook for abuses like workplace discrimination, faulty home building, illegal charges on cell phone bills, and, sadly, even mistreatment of the elderly in nursing homes. That’s why I’ve been a longtime cosponsor of the Arbitration Fairness Act, and why I worked with a bipartisan group of senators to urge the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to protect nursing home residents from having to bring their claims of abuse to a small group of arbitrators who are hand-selected by the company doing the abusing.
The reality is that Wall Street doesn’t need any more help. Consumers do. They deserve a real chance to take their cases to court. They deserve to freeze their credit for free whenever they want. They deserve to get answers about major breaches that threaten their financial health from companies like Equifax, which must take responsibility for their failures. And they deserve more options to fight against Big Banks and Republican efforts to undermine their rights.
Ron Wyden is the senior U.S. senator for Oregon.