Last week on May 9, more than 110 consumer advocates from 36 states around the nation gathered on Capitol Hill for the second annual Consumer Lobby Day coordinated by Public Citizen, Consumer Federation of America, Americans for Financial Reform, Consumer Action, Consumers Union, The Institute for College Access & Success, National Association of Consumer Advocates, National Consumer Law Center, National Consumers League, and U.S. PIRG.
On lobby Day, consumer advocates from around the nation, including several Public Citizen members and supporters, met with staff of the Senators and Representatives from their states to urge them to support consumer protections in Congress and to oppose any rolling back of existing financial reforms. The goal of the event was to ensure that consumer voices from across the country were heard loud and clear in Washington to help counteract the outsized influence of bank lobbyists that swarm Capitol Hill.
The two-day event kicked off at the Thurgood Marshall Center Trust where advocates learned from experts in the field and former and current staffers for Hill offices and administrative agencies about best practices in lobbying elected representatives and the importance of lawmakers hearing directly from their constituents. One of the major themes that was woven through all of the panels was the importance of personal storytelling and forming real-life connections to otherwise obscure policy issues. While facts and figures about consumer protection are useful, it is the stories of real constituents who have suffered from financial issues due to bank wrongdoing, predatory lending, or harmful debt collection activities that really drive our officials to make change.
The community advocates teamed up with national representatives from the organizations co-sponsoring the event to plan their individual state-based approaches for the lobby meetings and to help incorporate the tips they’d learned from the lobbying pros. The advocates wrapped up their evening with a meaningful discussion of the history of the consumer movement and what lessons consumers should be taking from past movements to create favorable change today.
The group of state advocates reconvened on May 9 in the Kennedy Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building. There, they were joined by Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada who spoke about their own commitments to consumer protections. Both Senators emphasized their strong connections to their constituents back home, reaffirming the points that had been made at the training session about the importance of hearing personal stories. Senator Brown is a Ranking Member of the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, a committee on which Senator Cortez Masto also serves. As such, they have both fought for consumer protections and against the current deregulatory tactics of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) under acting director Mick Mulvaney. Armed with the support of these two Senators, the state-based teams of advocates set out around the Capitol for their meetings.
There were three main subject areas on which advocates focused in their meetings:
- Preserving the CFPB’s payday lending rule: The advocates spoke out about the harms of predatory lending and the importance of the CFPB rule that requires lenders to assess whether a borrower is able to repay a short-term loan before the loan is granted. Although this seems like a commonsense rule, it has been under attack in Congress. Luckily, thanks to the work of the advocates to defend the rule, we held off a vote to overturn the payday rule and the timeline for possible overturn of the rule expired this week.
- Maintaining a strong and independent CFPB: Advocates stressed to their senators and representatives how much having a strong and independent CFPB does to protect constituents and expressed their discontent with the temporary acting director, Mick Mulvaney. The appointment of a permanent CFPB Director who is committed to the mandate of the Bureau was one of the requests made by advocates as well as preserving its single-director structure and independent source of funding from the Federal Reserve. Advocates also stressed the need for the CFPB to keep its database of consumer complaints against companies public and transparent.
- Opposing anti-consumer measures like S. 2155, nicknamed the “Bank Lobbyist Act,” which would undermine existing financial reforms put in place through the Dodd-Frank Act: Advocates spoke to the dangers of causing another crash and subsequent taxpayer bailout since communities across the country are still suffering from the 2008 crash and its aftermath. Other threats were also highlighted, such as attempts to gut protections from students at for-profit colleges that don’t deliver quality education and lead to defaulted loans; to weaken Fair Debt Collection Practices Act protections; to remove banks from CFPB oversight, and other current attempts to roll back consumer financial protections.
With more than 200 meetings taking place on the Hill in one day, the message that consumers want stronger, not weaker financial protections was heard all through the halls of Congress. While substantive change can be slow in coming, nothing puts the feet of our elected officials to the fire better than hearing directly from the constituents they represent.
Now more than ever, with consumer protections under attack from all sides, it is of the utmost importance for all Americans to step up their activism. The impressive turnout and success of Consumer Lobby Day was a strong step forward in the fight to protect consumer rights, both within Washington and across the country, but to really win these fights we need YOU to get involved! For example, the House will vote on the Bank Lobbyist Act in just a few days. Take the time to call your representative and urge them to vote against the Dodd-Frank rollback and ask them to tweet about their opposition to the bill using #BankLobbyistAct.