Senate chooses Wall Street over consumers, seniors, and service members
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After 10 p.m. on a recent autumn night, Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceElection Countdown: Senate, House Dems build cash advantage | 2020 Dems slam Trump over Putin presser | Trump has M in war chest | Republican blasts parents for donating to rival | Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders to campaign in Kansas Lewandowski: Trump-Putin meeting advances goal of world peace Indiana has spent over million on cleanup of failed Pence family gas stations: report MORE and 50 U.S. senators decided that consumers should lose the right to hold massive financial institutions like Wells Fargo and Equifax accountable.

It’s a disgrace.

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The bill they passed, signed soon after by President Trump, wiped out a recently finalized Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) rule restoring Americans’ constitutional rights to access the courts when financial giants break the law. “Forced arbitration” lets big banks use the fine print of customer agreements to steer consumers into a rigged arbitration system—hidden from public view and often designed and controlled by the banks.

Wall Street worked overtime to kill the CFPB’s rule because forced arbitration allows big banks to cover up scandals and avoid public accountability. Most senators know that it’s wrong to give entities like Equifax and Wells Fargo the power to strip Americans of their rights, but they waited until after hours when the public wasn’t looking and did it anyway.

To make matters worse, the Senate’s defenders of forced arbitration seem to have no grasp of the facts at all, and real people will pay the price.

To those fact-deprived senators, I ask one simple question: do you honestly think that service members who are defrauded while serving overseas, or seniors who are abused in nursing homes, or women who are sexually harassed at work should be forced to go it alone in a secretive arbitration process? Would you want that for your loved ones? 

Some said that forced arbitration is better for consumers but the data shows the opposite. On average, 6.8 million consumers recover at least $440 million in cash relief in class actions, after deducting all attorneys’ fees and court costs—compared to just 16 consumers who receive cash relief in arbitration each year. The truth is, big banks know that if consumers with small dollar losses can’t band together to hold them accountable in court, very few can afford the time and expense of going it alone against a massive financial institution.

Others hid behind false claims that small banks and credit unions would be hurt, but 97 percent of credit unions don’t use arbitration clauses, and only 8 percent of smaller banks do in their checking account agreements. The credit unions even admitted “very minimal usage, if any,” but that didn’t stop misinformed senators from using them as a prop.

Incredibly some even claimed that the CFPB rule would force consumers into court. This is false. The rule simply restored Americans’ ability to choose to join with other consumers to hold mega banks accountable—or go to arbitration. Individuals can’t be forced to bring a civil claim in court if they don’t want to. To suggest otherwise is absurd.

And of course, despite the fact that over 370 organizations as varied and respected as the American Legion, the Military Coalition, AFL-CIO, NAACP and AARP, all want the rule upheld, Wall Street interests dusted off their old saw about “trial lawyers”—but that’s what you do when you don’t have facts or logic on your side. 

And to those who voted to retain Wall Street’s power to force Americans into arbitration, please explain to your constituents why entities like Wells Fargo and Equifax deserve more protection than service members, seniors and consumers. Why are the American public’s constitutional rights less important than special favors for Wall Street? Why do banks get to sue their customers but their customers can’t sue them?

Equifax tried to steer its 145.5 million data breach victims into this rigged system. Wells Fargo did the same after opening millions of fraudulent accounts in its customers’ names, and separately operating a years-long scam in which customers were slapped with illegitimate overdraft fees. Is this the kind of behavior that Mike Pence and half the Senate should be protecting? 

The American public overwhelmingly says “no.”

Whether you’re a Republican, Libertarian, Independent or Democrat, voters strongly supported upholding the CFPB rule because financial frauds and abuses don’t discriminate by political party.

To the mega banks and their 50 friends in the Senate: I understand that spreading misinformation and demonizing lawyers is what you do when you know you are on the wrong side of an issue. But lawyers aren’t the issue, and they never really were. The issue is that someday, thousands of your constituents may have their identities stolen, or get credit cards they didn’t sign up for, or see mysterious charges on their bank statements—and you will have to tell them why they can’t fight back.

Lipsen is CEO of American Association for Justice.