A congressional Christmas list for consumers

A congressional Christmas list for consumers
© Greg Nash

As the little ones are finishing up sending millions of letters beseeching Santa to bring them all sorts of goodies, it’s not too late for Congress to join the festivities. While most of the requests made of Santa include a relatively modest wish list of toys and games, if Congress gets in the holiday spirit, it could deliver legislation that would benefit all 327 million American consumers.

Congress kicked off the holiday season with a gift that will prove a huge win for every American that owns a phone when the House and Senate reconciled their two bills to crack down on abusive robocalls. Earlier this year, Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), put out a warning to U.S. telecoms: Stop robocalling abuse, or the FCC will. In light of Chairman Pai’s announcement, Consumers’ Research recommended a host of options that the FCC could take up to quell the consumer abuse of out-of-control robocalling.

The House and Senate, picking up on the fact that American consumers hate robocalls, finally reached a compromise that gives the FCC additional authority and a legislative mandate to crack down on those unwanted calls. Before it went home for the holidays, Congress sent the compromise bill, called the TRACED Act, over the finish line and onto the president’s desk. Failure to pass such pro-consumer legislation would have been like Santa leaving the kids with an empty stocking.

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But the House and Senate shouldn’t stop there. Before the New Year, Congress needs to put a bow on the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and bring it across the finish line. Almost a year ago, Consumers’ Research cheered the announcement that the United States had reached an agreement with Mexico and Canada that would modernize NAFTA. But unfortunately, the USMCA languished in Congress for over a year.

The House passed the bill last week, and it will now head to the Senate. This trade deal is good for consumers because it will promote freer markets, reducing prices for consumers while expanding choices. It will also help promote economic growth for all three trading partners. 

Some of the most consumer-friendly provisions bring trade with Mexico and Canada into the digital age. Privacy protection and email spam are some of the greatest consumer concerns online. While not perfect, the United States strives to push American companies to provide broad consumer protections online. The USMCA ensures that American consumers can expect companies operating in the digital marketplace to maintain the standards required by U.S. companies.

The USMCA also exports some of the most critical aspects of United States intellectual property protections to Canada and Mexico. In one particularly noteworthy provision sure to please entrepreneurs looking to export technology products, the USMCA blocks the Canadian and Mexican governments from arbitrarily taking proprietary technology from American businesses. These protections for American innovators help discourage counterfeit goods that cheat consumers. 

Last but not least, Congress should start work on bipartisan legislation updating the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) agency. Next year, the Supreme Court will determine if the bureau’s leadership structure is constitutional. Regardless of how the court rules, the bureau’s funding mechanism will likely remain woefully deficient. As originally designed, the CFPB is funded outside of normal congressional channels, a crucial flaw that allows it to escape the rigorous scrutiny typically applied to federal agencies during the budget process.

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Most agencies must navigate a byzantine series of House and Senate hearings on operations spending, fight through lawmaker questions, deal with a bit of preening and finally, earn a budget agreement. Then they get to do it all over again with the appropriations committee. In the end, most agencies end up interacting with more than 100 elected officials during the budget process, providing much-needed transparency to agency funding and activities. 

But the only formal interaction between lawmakers and the director of the CFPB take place over four hearings in two committees a year. Assuring better agency accountability through an appropriations process under congressional oversight is a worthy holiday wish. 

In just a few weeks, America will be ringing in the New Year. But Christmas hasn’t quite come yet, and there is still time for federal policymakers to keep consumers foremost in their minds. Consumers have their list, and Congress needs to check it twice before it heads home for the holidays. By taking care of some last-minute business in 2019, policymakers can start the 2020s off right.

Beau Brunson is director of policy and regulatory affairs at Consumers’ Research.