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Are Public “Requests for Information” Merely a Smokescreen to Feign Legitimacy of Mick Mulvaney’s Disruption of Consumer Agency?

Written by Christine Hines, Legislative Director

This week, Mick Mulvaney, acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and his politicos unceremoniously fired all the members of its Consumer Advisory Board as well as the Community Bank Advisory Council and the Credit Union Advisory Council. The boards, made up of consumer experts, community members, entrepreneurs, and financial industry representatives consult with and advise the bureau on its pending issues and share their knowledge and experiences in the financial marketplace.

The seemingly sudden and spiteful dismantling of the advisory boards illustrates the disingenuous nature of Mulvaney’s series of public “Requests for Information,” which claims to seek feedback on major aspects of the agency’s operations. The RFIs purportedly are examining various bureau internal processes, including enforcement of consumer law violations, rulemaking, consumer complaint responses, and financial education.

The CFPB published twelve major Requests for Information with deadlines for each coming up one right after another in an eleven-week span. These requests seek detailed information that require significant planning, research, drafting, and outreach to consumers and other stakeholders. But the hurried nature of the process implies that Mulvaney is not looking for the public’s feedback at all. He and his cohorts seem to already know how they want to disrupt the bureau’s functions. These requests are a mere smokescreen for their true intentions.

The advisory board debacle this week is a case in point. In its announcement firing the board members, the bureau attempted to partly justify dismantling the boards by claiming the Request for Information on External Engagements “informed [their] shift” to modify the advisory boards and councils. This particular RFI, which received fifty-eight comments from the public, closed on May 29, 2018, just over a week before they officially fired the board members on a conference call. That’s not much time for a staff to review and consider substantive public comments.

And what about the feedback received? Did the public comments call for firing all board members and major restructuring of the CAB and other advisory boards? No. The destruction of the current advisory boards was the direction that Mulvaney and his political team were headed. Comments from the public, no matter how persuasive, would not have veered them off that course.

Indeed, the RFI questions barely seek information about whether the bureau departments are adequately protecting consumers in their roles or how they can better protect consumers. The RFI inquiries zero in on the entities’ experiences with the bureau. The primary theme from the RFIs seems to be “is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau treating you well enough, financial entities?”

Kathleen Engel, Judith Fox, and Lynn Drysdale, three members of the disbanded Consumer Advisory Board (and members of this organization), have years of experience working on complex financial issues, and as consumer law professors and a legal aid attorney, respectively, tremendous expertise in consumer protection. Yet their outlook on this CFPB’s work has been rejected by Mulvaney. How valuable will other consumer voices be when theirs have been ignored?

Responding to this bureau’s Requests for Information is a thankless task for those focused on providing the strongest protections for consumers in the financial marketplace. But ensuring that our voices are documented on the public record is essential for the day when the CFPB once again focuses on its mandate, namely, the interests of consumers.