Frustration at the disruptions caused by optional in-person attendance for committee hearings boiled over at a House Financial Services Committee hearing Wednesday with testimony from Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Rohit Chopra.
Witnesses, staff and advocates are back in hearing rooms, but some lawmakers are still tuning in virtually, leading to confusion and disruption two years into the COVID-19 pandemic. Those frustrations came to a head Wednesday as Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., tried to question Chopra about influencing industry behavior through public statements.
Huizenga’s questions were interrupted by a member attending virtually with an unmuted microphone.
“As a courtesy to our witnesses, maybe people ought to show up,” Huizenga said, earning scattered applause from Republicans in the room. “That would be helpful, so then he actually could clearly hear us. But we have other members interrupting my time because they can’t turn their stupid mics off.”
It was the second time virtual attendance posed an issue in the room. During Rep. Al Lawson’s, D-Fla., questions, Chopra interrupted to ask that the congressman speak up. The room’s acoustics make it harder to hear remote members.
About a third of members asking questions attended the hearing virtually, including Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., who called from a car parked about a mile from the Capitol.
Chairwoman Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who gaveled in the hearing and left after about an hour, later tested positive for COVID-19.
After the disruptions, Chopra fielded questions about fees charged by banks, and medical debt.
Republicans asked Chopra to define what the agency means by so-called junk fees charged by banks and financial services firms. The agency in January launched an examination into fees, such as overdraft fees charged by banks and late fees charged by credit card companies.
“When it is a fee that is often not subject to the full competitive process, and specifically for a service you may have never asked for, or where its cost is way in excess of what a competitive market would be,” Chopra said. “Many Americans experience this in their day-to-day life. There is a fee-creep that is occurring throughout the economy.”
Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., said Chopra’s definition was “very subjective.” Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., said the fees the CFPB is examining aren't illegal, and that it’s up to Congress, not Chopra, to determine which practices are legal and which aren’t.
“Is your job to enforce a law, or what you personally believe is wrong?” Loudermilk said.
Banks took in about $15.5 billion in overdraft and insufficient balance fees in 2019, according to CFPB data. Amid scrutiny, about a dozen big banks have voluntarily scaled back or eliminated fees charged to customers who exceed their balances. Chopra applauded the developments.
“Institutions are starting to compete more on fees,” he said. “We are seeing institutions reduce their overdraft fees. In some cases, they’re providing the same service for a much lower cost or even providing it for free. This is one of the beauties of a competitive market. If there’s real competition even on the back end, people can benefit across the board.”
Democrats pressed Chopra on what the CFPB can do to ease the burden or long-term financial consequences of medical debt.
In response to questions from Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and other lawmakers, Chopra said medical debt could derail a person’s financial future.
“I do worry that illness is creating cycles of debt that people get pushed down and can’t get back up from,” Chopra said.
About $88 billion in medical debt is reflected in credit reports, according to a CFPB study released in March.
After the CFPB released the study, credit reporting companies Equifax, Experian and TransUnion said they would no longer include medical debt that has gone to collections in credit reports if a consumer later repays that debt. They also doubled from six months to a year the grace period that consumers have to repay the medical balances before they’re incorporated into reports.
The changes should eliminate about 70 percent of medical collection debt from consumer credit reports, the companies said.