Consumer Carnage: How Federal Enforcement of Consumer-Protection Laws Has Declined Under Trump

By Alan Zibel

Law enforcement activity at three large U.S. consumer protection agencies has fallen sharply under President Donald Trump, as the White House continues to put corporate interests ahead of the middle class.

A new Public Citizen report, “Consumer Carnage,” examined enforcement activity at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regarding cases that resulted in fines of $5,000 or more.

The analysis found that during Trump’s first two years in office, these agencies completed a total of 84 enforcement cases combined, a 37 percent decline from 133 cases completed during President Barack Obama’s last two years in office.

More specifically, Public Citizen found that enforcement activity against corporations:

  • Sank by more than 50 percent at the CFPB once the Trump administration assumed control over the agency in late 2017. The CFPB completed 11 enforcement actions in 2018 under Trump-appointed leadership, compared with 24 the prior year, when the CFPB was led by an Obama-appointed official.
  • Fell to only seven cases at the CPSC during Trump’s first two years in office, compared with 13 in Obama’s final two years.

“Members of the Trump administration have made abundantly clear they perceive their function as serving and assisting corporations instead of holding them accountable for lawbreaking,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “Under this president, federal agencies have slashed fines, declined to bring cases against corporate wrongdoers and gutted enforcement programs. The result is a government that is eager to throw consumers under the bus.”

Year Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Consumer Product Safety Commission Federal Trade Commission* Grand Total
2015 41 7 30 78
2016 23 6 26 55
2017 24 4 15 43
2018 11 3 27 41
Grand Total 99 20 98 217
*FTC tally for 2016 includes two 2017 cases from before Trump’s inauguration

The change at the CFPB in particular has been especially egregious. Public Citizen found that under Trump, the CFPB has moved to terminate investigations, settled cases, lowered fines or imposed no fines at all in at least 10 instances. In one recent case, the CFPB fined a lender accused of swindling veterans out of their benefits just one dollar after the lender claimed he couldn’t pay.

At the CPSC, two Democrats on the commission have written strong dissents to the agency’s settlements in cases involving defective jogging strollers whose front wheels could detach suddenly during use (at least 50 children and 47 adults were injured) and trash cans whose back protective collars could become dislodged, exposing a sharp edge (at least 60 people have been injured). And the FTC has yet to sanction Facebook over potential violations of a 2011 FTC consent decree over privacy issues.

For the report, Public Citizen examined enforcement cases at the three agencies from 2015 through 2018 and used the Violation Tracker database compiled by the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First.

Trump’s appointees’ apparent belief that enforcement of consumer protection laws should be a last resort represents a dramatic about-face from Trump’s claim of populism during his campaign. Trump, who once asserted that he was ‘not going to let Wall Street get away with murder,’ now is allowing industry after industry to get away with just about anything.

Read the report (PDF).