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Banks and credit card companies just scored a big win. What does it mean for consumers?

The Senate overturned a rule on Tuesday that would allow consumers to bring class action suits against banks and credit card companies, ending a long-brewing battle over the use of arbitration clauses by financial institutions. William Brangham talks to Elizabeth Dexheimer of Bloomberg to break down what this means for consumers.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now: a big win overnight for U.S. banks and credit card companies. It goes back to a long-brewing battle over whether consumers have the right to bring class-action lawsuits against those companies.

    William Brangham has the details.

  • William Brangham:

    Until recently, consumers who signed up for checking accounts or credit cards gave up their right to be part of any class-action lawsuit brought against that company.

    Most people had no idea they’d given up this right, because banks and other institutions tuck what are known as arbitration clauses into those long fine-print agreements we all sign without ever really reading.

    The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the CFPB, had passed a rule saying that arbitration was unfair and groups deserved their day in court. But then, last night, the Senate overturned that rule 51-50, with Vice President Pence casting the tie-breaking vote.

    So what does this actually mean for consumers?

    To help us understand that, we turn to Bloomberg’s Elizabeth Dexheimer.

    Welcome.

  • Elizabeth Dexheimer:

     Thank you.

  • William Brangham:

    So, what does this mean for consumers?

  • Elizabeth Dexheimer:

    So, the status quo that you just described will continue. You mentioned it’s arbitration agreements. These are very common.

    And when you open a checking account or a credit card, you typically sign a contract with this clause that says you will not join together with other consumers in a class-action lawsuit, and that if you have got a problem with your bank, you think that they’re overcharging you or some — a grievance that you have, you’re going to resolve that through a closed-door arbitration process, instead of arguing it in open court.

    This is an issue that, as part of the Dodd-Frank law, following the financial crisis, the consumer Financial Protection Bureau was told to study this issue. They did. They published a report. And based on those findings, they crafted this rule.

    Since the beginning, for years, Republicans and the financial services industry has been against it and been pushing back.

  • William Brangham:

    So, the industry has been fighting this and putting a lot of money into lobbying this for a long time, right? I mean, this — are they really looking out for the consumers’ interest, or are they looking out for their own financial interests here?

  • Elizabeth Dexheimer: 

    Both.

    They certainly argue that this is in the interest of the consumer. They point to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s own study and some of its findings about how rewards — awards for consumers who have grievances and resolve them through arbitration are often better than if they go to court.

    However, another part of this is certainly that banks want to avoid what they see as frivolous lawsuits.

  • William Brangham:

    And the consumers groups around the country decried this. They said that this move last night was a huge giveaway to Wall Street, in essence. What is their argument?

  • Elizabeth Dexheimer:

    Right.

    So, they say that the best way to hold companies accountable is through lawsuits, and, particularly, they have looked at recent scandals at Wells Fargo and at Equifax to give a reason when companies — when consumers are harmed by companies, the best way to hold them accountable is by setting some sort of a precedent.

    And the — the best way to do that is through — is by suing them.

  • William Brangham:

    And the way that the Senate did this last night, right, means that there’s no doing over, right? Am I correctly reading this, that they have now made it so that no future administration can undo what they have done?

  • Elizabeth Dexheimer:

    That’s correct.

    Congress used the Congressional Review Act to reverse the rule. That is a law that Congress can use to overturn any regulation within 60 days after it’s enacted. And it means that the CFPB, effectively, can’t take this up.

    So, yes, it was a very effective way to squash this issue that Republicans have been fighting for years.

  • William Brangham:

    Elizabeth Dexheimer from Bloomberg, thank you very much.

  • Elizabeth Dexheimer:

    Thank you.

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