BY LARA SCHWARTZ AND BILLY CZERWINSKI
Tuesday night, the US Senate voted to gut a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau rule that gave consumers, including student loan borrowers, recourse against banks who cheat us. This was a particularly remarkable act in light of recent revelations that Wells Fargo had fraudulently opened over three million fake accounts and that Equifax had lied about a data breach that affected 143 million Americans (no wonder Equifax fought the CFPB rule tooth and nail). As a college professor and a student, we are writing to call out a generation of politicians who are trying to sell young people’s future to the highest bidder—most recently big banks.
First, we’ll explain what happened last night and what it means for students. When you take out a loan, apply for a credit card, or sign up for phone or internet service, the contract you sign contains fine print that says (a) if the corporation cheats you in some way, you can’t sue them in court. You have to go before a private judge called an arbitrator whom the corporation hires (!) and who will decide your case in secret, with no appeal; and (b) you have to go alone. This means that if a student loan lender or credit card company overcharges by, say, a few hundred dollars, the individual is going to have no recourse. That’s because nobody can bring a lawsuit for so little. But without these fine print “forced arbitration” clauses (we call them rip off clauses, which they are), a group of people can bring a class action lawsuit to get all of their money back. These lawsuits have returned billions of dollars to consumers. That’s why unscrupulous lenders don’t like them and try to use the fine print of student loan contracts and others as a get-out-of-jail-free card. If you gut our civil justice system, laws aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.
To protect people like heavily-indebted students, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued this rule. And last night, all but two Republican senators voted to take our rights away, with Vice President Pence casting the deciding vote. Not many people watched the vote; it happened under cover of night, and while most of the country was focused on the World Series or the President’s feud with a grieving widow. It might sound boring to you, but to student loan borrowers and the people who care about them—like professors and parents—it’s grand theft, and an outrage.
By slamming the courthouse door on student loan borrowers, Congress has apparently decided that young people’s future doesn’t matter as much as banking industry profits. No voter—liberal, conservative, or in between—put our officials in office to take away our right to a fair fight.
This is just one of many recent assaults on students. The Trump Administration has rescinded rules to hold predatory for-profit institutions accountable for misrepresenting their product and providing sub-par services and recently even rolled back conflict of interest rules that prevent Veterans Administration employees from being paid by for-profit colleges that often target veterans. Studies show that for-profit college students have among the highest student loan debt and receive few benefits; but they are also publicly-traded companies and big donors to this administration and many Senators. They are yet another industry that some in Congress and the Executive branch value above this young generation.
The fact that the federal government is giving cheaters license to fleece the next generation is the most important least talked about issue today—especially for students and young professionals trying to start their careers and lives. Everywhere you turn for financial help, Republicans have made it law that if those corporations want to screw you over to make an extra buck, then, to quote Justice Elena Kagan, that’s “too darn bad.”
Here’s the bad news to those who would try to sell young people’s future to the highest bidder: their future is not for sale. This is the least materialistic most socially conscious generation. This generation believes in a social safety net and in fighting wealth inequality. This is a generation that is outraged that leaders are selling them out for one last barrel of oil, for one last shot at an election fed by corporate dollars. This generation wants to overrule the Citizens United decision that flooded our political system with corporate money. Unsurprisingly, this heavily indebted generation, which is unlikely to be better off than the one before, is fed up with corporate greed.
But for this generation to take its future back is no mean feat. For starters, young people, particularly students, have been the target of vote suppression—precisely because of their dedication to economic and racial justice. Our message to the audience is simple. If you’re a student, don’t let your peers who have student debt stand alone. Let your peers know that much like LGBT equality, criminal justice reform, and climate change action, the assault on our financial futures demands our attention. If you’re a parent, don’t let your kids stand alone. Make sure that your legislators know that your child didn’t invest in an education only to be cheated. If you’re an educator, don’t let your students stand alone. Their future is being auctioned off as we speak, and it’s up to us to get it back. Don’t let big banks and the politicians who serve them force students to stand alone in the face of corporate greed and wrongdoing. We have to open the courthouse door back up—and we can’t do it alone.
Guest blogger Lara Schwartz teaches law and government at American University. Guest blogger Billy Czerwinski is a is a member of the AU School of Public Affairs Class of 2018, studying Communication, Legal Institutions, Economics, and Government.
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