American consumers took it on the chin in 2017, as regulations designed to protect them were weakened or eliminated by the administration of President Donald Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress.
“Not only has progress been halted on rules to ensure that consumers are treated more fairly in the marketplace, but protections they already had have been rolled back,” said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection and privacy at the Consumer Federation of America.
In his first week in office, President Trump vowed to slash regulations by 75 percent or more. The administration’s goal of “cutting the red tape” has resulted in what Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, the non-profit consumer rights advocacy group started by Ralph Nader, calls “a disaster” for consumers.
“With companies like Wells Fargo and Equifax illustrating, yet again, that big companies feel completely free to exploit, rip off and endanger consumers, if it helps profits, the Trump administration rushed to remove the federal cops on the beat,” Weissman said.
Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org, told NBC News he believes the president was able to get such quick results by appointing department heads “who have a history of fighting the very agencies they are now overseeing.”
Consumer advocates are reeling from the losses, following eight years of working with the Obama administration to create rules designed to clean up the marketplace and punish bad corporate behavior.
“It was a disastrous year in consumer protection,” said Liz Weston, personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. “We lost a breathtaking amount of ground in the past 12 months and the consequences will be draining people's wallets for years to come.”
NBC News asked the nation’s leading consumer advocates what they saw as the biggest losses in 2017. Two main issues stood out: the elimination of net neutrality and the repeal of a new rule that would restrict the widespread use of forced arbitration clauses by financial institutions in their service agreements.
The FCC repealed net neutrality rules
Net neutrality was designed to ensure that everyone would get equal access to the internet. But two weeks ago, the FCC voted to reclassify the internet as an information service, which eliminates the requirement for ISPs to treat all content equally. Now, broadband providers can legally pick winners and losers – and even slow down a competitor’s content or charge them more for high-speed delivery.
FCC chairman Ajit Pai, a Trump appointee, said ending net neutrality would stop the federal government from “micromanaging the internet,” and lead to greater innovation.
Consumer advocates believe the regulatory change will reduce competition and result in higher prices, and they worry that it could set the stage for a second-tier broadband service for low-income Americans.
“When companies introduce new tolls to a system like internet service, history has shown it typically leads to higher prices for consumers,” Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, told NBC News. “The biggest companies can most likely afford these new costs, but smaller companies could be left out in the cold, and that fundamentally changes the level playing field of the internet as we’ve known it.”
NBC News is owned by Comcast, the nation’s largest internet service provider.
Congress killed forced arbitration rules
In October, the Senate voted along party lines to kill a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau rule that limited forced arbitration clauses in consumer agreements with banks and credit card companies.
The rule, years in the making, would guarantee consumers the right to bring class-action lawsuits against banks and credit card companies, rather than be forced to arbitrate their dispute behind closed doors. It was all about “protecting people who simply want to be able to take action together to right the wrongs done to them,” Richard Cordray, CFPB director at the time, wrote President Trump.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called October’s move “a giant wet kiss to Wall Street." White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president wanted the rule killed because it would open the door to “frivolous lawsuits by special interest trial lawyers."
Consumer advocates also worry about the future of the CFPB now that White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney – who called the agency a “sick, sad joke” – is running the powerful financial regulator following Cordray’s recent resignation.
In the past five years, the CFPB has uncovered illegal practices in the banking, credit card, and mortgage industries, and returned more than $12 billion to consumers.
Lauren Saunders, associate director of the National Consumer Law Center, fears the new leadership at the agency will focus on “weakening accountability for companies that harm consumers, rather than protecting American families.”
Will 2018 be any better?
Consumers did win a few rounds this past year: The bull market continues on Wall Street with stocks soaring into record territory, the unemployment rate dropped to the lowest level in 17 years, and mortgage rates stayed below 4 percent.
But wage growth is slow, inflation is heating up, and millions of consumers now have to be on guard for identity theft because of the Equifax breach.
So, what lies ahead?
Congress is considering a variety of bills that would do even more to weaken federal financial and consumer regulations created by the Dodd-Frank Act following the great recession.
“We’ll see an emboldened emphasis on all sorts of deregulation, without any real understanding as to the benefits of reasonable financial rules that protect consumers and prevent another financial crisis,” said Ruth Susswein, deputy director for national priorities at Consumer Action.
Meantime, federal agencies from education to transportation continue working to undo protections currently in place and postpone the implementation of new rules already approved.
“In 2018, we anticipate even more fights with the executive branch agencies that seem dead-set on rolling back as many consumer protection regulations as they can,” Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League, told NBC News.