Senate mulls arbitration bill despite Equifax about-face

Republican leaders are reportedly mulling whether to bring to the Senate floor a bill that would nullify an Obama-era consumer protection regulation aimed curtailing a practice used by many corporations to keep potential class action lawsuits out of court.

The debate comes three weeks after a public outcry compelled the Atlanta-based Equifax to quickly drop so-called forced arbitration language from the terms of service of the free credit monitoring service it was offering its customers after its massive data breach.

Democrats and consumer action groups are mobilizing to try and quash the effort. Multiple news outlets reported that a vote could come as soon as this week, although a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday afternoon that nothing has been scheduled on the floor.

The GOP is looking to kill the arbitration regulation finalized by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB, this summer using a special legislative tool that allows them to avoid a Democratic filibuster if they act within 60 legislative days of implementation.

The House passed the same bill in July on a strict party-line vote of 233-188, with all of Georgia’s Republican lawmakers backing the effort.

Forced arbitration is a fairly common practice across the financial sector.

Equifax employed it fairly widely among its products, but on September 11 dropped similar language from the suite of free credit and identity theft protection services it is offering the 143 million victims of the breach after pressure from the public and consumer groups.

Watchdogs argue the that such language, often tucked within the fine print of terms of use agreements that customers rarely read, limits the legal recourse available to consumers in the event of a dispute by forcing them to use arbitration instead of a trial or class-action suit. They say it gives businesses the upper hand while limiting public information about corporate wrongdoing.

Georgia GOP Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue are cosponsors of the legislation in the Senate. Both have complained of overreach by the CFPB, an agency created in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and widely loathed by the GOP.

Perdue, a former Fortune 500 CEO, previously said arbitration has been proven to be “cost-effective” in resolving legal disputes for corporations and that the only people benefiting from the CFPB’s rule are trial lawyers.

“We know that we have problems with the CFPB, and now’s the time to go ahead and address that,” Perdue said Tuesday.

Isakson has said the rule is burdensome to consumers. Arbitration, he said, often leads to people receiving larger and faster compensation than in class action suits.

Democrats disagree.

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson of Lithonia, who previously authored legislation limiting the use of forced arbitrations, called the timing of the GOP effort “tone deaf” given the recent attention Equifax has received for utilizing the practice.

Republicans risk making it look like “elected officials are catering to the needs of big business as opposed to consumers and their families,” he said Tuesday.

Several Senate Democrats, including party leader Chuck Schumer of New York and CFPB ally Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have scheduled a news conference to discuss the potential vote later this morning.

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