Happy National Consumer Protection Week!
You’ll never guess how the Trump administration is celebrating this momentous occasion.
National Consumer Protection Week is an annual pro-public-welfare commemoration of sorts, coordinated by a broad array of government agencies and dating back more than 20 years. The purpose of the occasion is to help consumers understand their rights, and to spread awareness of all the ways the government cracks down on scammers and cheats.
At least, that’s normally the case.
On Monday of National Consumer Protection Week, President Trump announced that he was nominating Nancy Beck, a former chemical industry executive who supports laxer regulation of toxic chemicals, to chair the Consumer Product Safety Commission. This independent agency is tasked with protecting the public from any dangers posed by the thousands of products it oversees -- including dangers posed by toxic chemicals.
She would be, in other words, a fox overseeing a henhouse.
Beck has already done a fair amount of damage to consumers through her other administration responsibilities. For about two years she ran the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, where she pushed for policies that make life easier for industry and more life-threatening for consumers.
For instance, she worked to weaken and delay the Trump administration’s response to the growing public health crisis caused by a class of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. These so-called forever chemicals have been used in nonstick pans and firefighting foams, among other products. They have been linked to a range of health problems, including cancers and birth defects.
Also at EPA, Beck helped scale back proposed bans on other toxic substances, including asbestos, a lethal chemical used in paint-stripping products and a pesticide that gives children brain damage. We should fear what she would do if she gets to oversee huge classes of consumer product recalls -- which the Consumer Product Safety Commission has already been loath to implement, as other Trump appointees bend to industry pressure.
On Tuesday of National Consumer Protection Week, the Trump administration continued its assault on another major independent agency with this constituency in its name: the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
The CFPB was created after the financial crisis, with three broad objectives: to help consumers make more informed decisions about complex financial products; to crack down on those seeking to cheat or deceive consumers; and, through those first two efforts, to prevent some of the systemic financial problems that led to the last crisis.
The agency recovered nearly $12 billion on behalf of consumers from 2011 to 2017, but under Trump it has severely rolled back regulations, oversight and enforcement. For instance, it halted compliance exams used to enforce the Military Lending Act, which protects military personnel from predatory lenders.
Worse, the administration has argued that the structure of the entire bureau -- as an independent agency, whose director the president can’t fire at will -- is unconstitutional. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard a challenge to the agency’s constitutionality, which the Trump administration refused to defend.
None of these actions would follow from what Trump told us to expect of our annual commemoration of consumers.
"We must remain vigilant for bad actors seeking to harm and exploit honest and hard-working people through deception and other nefarious tactics," he declared in a comically un-self-aware statement last week. "During National Consumer Protection Week, we reaffirm our commitment to safeguarding the American consumer from malicious practices and strengthening our efforts to prevent and prosecute fraud."
"Reaffirm" is a strange word choice here, since at no point has the president previously "affirmed" his commitment to safeguarding American consumers. Instead, over the past several decades, Trump and his businesses have been repeatedly accused of cheating or deceiving customers, through impressively eclectic means: worthless Trump University seminars, misstated real estate sales figures, allegedly discriminatory apartment rental practices, failure to refund golf club fees.
Given that context, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that since becoming president, he’s also used the power of his office to make it easier for other "bad actors" to act badly -- and specifically, to reduce the expected repercussions for deceiving, impoverishing or poisoning consumers.
Including during this year’s National Consumer Protection Week.
One final note: This week we also learned that federal prosecutions of white-collar crimes are on pace to reach yet another all-time low, according to a new report from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. Those numbers, or other data showing reduced prosecution of environmental or regulatory crimes that might harm consumers, only address enforcement, of course; they don’t cover the many, many ways that Trump’s minions have been eliminating pro-consumer rules and regulations altogether, so there’s nothing left to enforce.
Given recent developments, you might consider this year’s National Consumer Protection Week somewhat poorly timed. But then, maybe the timing would seem inopportune almost any week with Trump at the helm.
Catherine Rampell’s email address is email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.