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The travel industry is strictly regulated for health and safety, a fact for which we should all be grateful. But when it comes to consumer protection — and comfort — most laws still favor businesses. What do passengers say they want? Transparent pricing. Fair business practices. And a little more legroom on the plane, please. In recent years, efforts to make those things happen have met with mixed results. Here’s where they stand as we head into the summer travel season. So here we are, approaching the beginning of summer, with the same scant consumer protections we had last summer. Advocates are waging a lonely fight to strengthen our consumer laws and regulations. Let’s hope they’ll have something to show for it by this time next year.
The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Office of Inspector General (OIG) on Thursday recommended that the agency demand $124,000 in reimbursements from former Administrator Scott Pruitt. The watchdog found that Pruitt made “excessive airfare expenses ... without sufficient justification to support security concerns requiring the use of first- and business-class travel.” "The OIG made a total of 14 recommendations, of which 10 are unresolved. Overall, actions need to be taken to strengthen controls over agency travel to help prevent the potential for future fraud, waste and abuse," it said in a press release accompanying the report.
A coalition of consumer and labor groups is challenging the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s proposal to ease an Obama-era restriction on payday lenders, using language that suggests there are legal grounds to block the new rule. CFPB Director Kathy Kraninger in February introduced the bureau’s proposed plan to effectively unwind regulation imposing underwriting standards on payday lenders, which was originally supposed to go into effect Aug. 19. The proposed rule has been championed by payday and auto title lenders but opposed by consumer groups. The coalition, led by Americans for Financial Reform and the Center for Responsible Lending, submitted its 220-page comment Thursday, when the comment period on the CFPB’s proposal closed. The consumer advocates called the proposal “arbitrary and capricious,” a direct reference to the Administrative Procedure Act, which tells courts to invalidate agency actions that are found to be “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law.”
Boeing said Thursday that it has completed a software update for its 737 Max planes, a key step in getting the aircraft flying again after aviation authorities grounded the jets around the world following two fatal crashes. Boeing said it is planning to work with the Federal Aviation Administration to schedule a certification flight.
The question is whether large penalties imposed on companies deter them from future bad behavior. The answer appears to be “no.” All that suggests companies have little to worry about from government investigations and penalties that may be assessed. Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, is pushing to change that. She introduced a bill that would allow prosecutors to pursue charges against executives for negligently permitting or failing to prevent a criminal violation by the company. Whether this proposal will gain any traction in Congress is an open question, but it would certainly get the attention of chief executives if they discover problems inside the company. But the Justice Department under President Trump has favored deferred and non-prosecution agreements rather than guilty pleas. The penalties imposed have been relatively small over the past two years, compared with those seen at the end of the Obama administration. That raises the question of whether the friendlier climate in Washington will engender greater compliance, or foster the view that a violation will result in only an expensive speeding ticket.
A federal judge on Wednesday ordered the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to speed up its reviews of thousands of electronic cigarettes currently on the market, siding with public health groups that sued the agency. The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Maryland last year by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and other public health groups. They argued that the FDA's delay in regulating e-cigarette products led a spike in underage vaping. According to the judge, the FDA's decision to delay reviewing electronic cigarette products for several years amounted to a serious dereliction of duty.
Half of Fortune 500 company CEOs said in a new survey that they believe Facebook should be more regulated. Fifty percent of the industry leaders in the Fortune survey released Monday said they agreed that Facebook “has grown so large and influential that it needs additional regulation.”
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote next month on a proposal to let phone carriers block certain calls by default in an effort to crack down on unwanted robocalls, the agency announced Wednesday. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said his proposal would clarify the commission’s rules to let carriers filter out robocalls or scam calls from fraudulent numbers. The FCC will also be voting on a rule to give safe harbor to carriers implementing call blocking informed by a new authentication standard that the industry is expected to adopt this year.
In a little-noticed memo, several weeks ago, the Office of Management and Budget modified its guidelines on the Information Quality Act (IQA). These modifications increase the responsibilities of agencies to carefully respond when a member of the public submits a complaint about information that the agency has made public. The revised guidelines are similar to an effort by the Environmental Protection Agency issued in April 2018, to “strengthen science used in EPA regulations.” At the same time that the Trump administration is purporting to strengthen science, it is being regularly criticized for ignoring science and economics in many of its individual policy initiatives. The administration has worked to eliminate information on climate change from its websites. Its economic analysis of its regulations have been regularly criticized. Just last week reports surfaced regarding the EPA ignoring scientists when it issued new regulations on asbestos exposure.
Carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere was measured at a record high of 415 parts per millions (ppm) on Friday, scientists said. The reading was made by the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, which has maintained a rolling measure of CO2 levels since 1958. Ralph Keeling, director of Scripps CO2 Program at the observatory, said that the carbon dioxide "growth rate is remaining at the high end."
In the nearly five decades since, the Clean Air Act has saved literally millions of American lives and trillions of dollars ― $22 trillion in its first 20 years alone, government studies have found. Despite the angry protestations of polluting industries it forced to change, the law’s benefits, in dollar terms, have proved dozens of times greater than the costs. That’s because just as higher rates of pollution are linked to more death and illness, cleaner air means fewer heart attacks and strokes, less cancer and dementia, and longer lives. But as the Trump administration rolls back the regulations that turn the law’s principles into reality on the ground, and guts the agency charged with enforcing them, the Clean Air Act’s considerable accomplishments are at grave risk. The Clean Air Act is far from perfect, but its successes are a testament to the idea that congressional power, when used wisely, can change Americans’ lives for the better.
Two former Treasury secretaries joined two former Federal Reserve leaders on Monday to warn that the Trump administration’s efforts to relax oversight of certain financial firms could seriously threaten the stability of America’s financial system. The stark warning came two months after a federal oversight panel said it planned to stop designating large, non-bank financial institutions like insurers and asset managers as “systemically important” and placing them under stricter federal oversight. The Financial Stability Oversight Council move would ease a process put in place after the 2008 financial crisis that aimed to prevent non-bank financial firms, like American International Group, from posing a risk to the American economy. Instead of designating companies that the government believes pose a risk to the financial system, the oversight council has proposed designated “activities” that pose a risk, such as certain financial products. Regulators who dealt with the aftermath of the crisis fear that dropping the designation could be a grave mistake. On Monday, the former Treasury secretaries, Jacob J. Lew and Timothy F. Geithner, and the two former Federal leaders, Ben S. Bernanke and Janet L. Yellen, urged their successors, Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, and Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chairman, to rethink the plan.
Once upon a time in America, when banks or investors lent money to a company, they expected to receive years of agreed-upon interest payments plus the return of the money borrowed. If the business did well, the lenders were paid back on time and made money. So they wanted the company to succeed. Not anymore. Instead, the misuse of financial instruments is creating perverse incentives, rewarding crafty creditors for forcing companies into bankruptcy. Thanks to a lack of rules requiring creditors to be transparent, companies, their employees and their investors may have no way of knowing a creditor’s real intentions until it’s too late. The main, but not the only, culprit is a form of financial insurance called credit-default swaps — and the hedge fund wiseguys who wield them like cudgels. Credit-default swaps, you may remember from the 2008 financial crisis, allow creditors to insure themselves against the risk that the borrower responsible for debt they own might go into default. Buying insurance means that in case of default they can still get paid back 100 cents on the dollar.
The Department of the Interior has acknowledged the widespread opposition with platitudes and meaningless theater. Former Secretary Ryan Zinke went so far as to tweet that Florida waters would be safe from offshore drilling after the Trump plan was released, a promise that was later retracted. There have been no official assurances provided by the Department of the Interior that any area will be protected from offshore drilling. For now, the Obama-era program will remain in effect, and plans for new lease sales in sensitive areas, like the Beaufort Sea, cannot go forward. But as we celebrate the delay of the offshore oil and gas plan, we must also redouble our efforts to stop expanded offshore drilling. A delay is not enough. We cannot stop until there are tangible protections for our ocean and the wildlife and communities that depend on them. Congress has the power to provide the protections that coastal communities around the country are demanding. Congress must take action — now.
States are preparing to fight back as the Trump administration moves to erase Obama-era standards for lightbulbs. The Department of Energy (DOE) has proposed new regulations for lightbulbs that would eliminate efficiency standards for half the bulbs on the market. The move has prompted a backlash from a bipartisan mix of state attorneys general and governors who say it is harmful to the planet and may be illegal.
Across the agencies, enforcement actions against polluters, banks, and corporations have dwindled. The Environmental Protection Agency collected a mere $69 million in civil and administrative penalties from polluters in 2018, the lowest amount levied by the agency in more than a decade. Criminal fines collected by the EPA from polluters plunged to $88 million, the lowest total for such penalties assessed in a decade. In 2018, EPA referred the fewest new criminal cases to the Justice Department in any year since 1988. The nation’s financial sectors also received a reprieve. Corporate penalties imposed in Justice Department prosecutions plummeted by 72 percent during the first 20 months of the administration, compared to those levied during the final 20 months of the Obama presidency. Meanwhile, penalties imposed and illicit profits ordered returned by the Securities and Exchange Commission fell by 62 percent. The volume of publicly announced enforcement actions by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under Donald Trump’s tenure has also steeply declined. Often, the enforcement decline is less a product of slash-and-burn practices than slow bloodletting and bureaucratic sandbagging. Staffing reallocations, buyouts, and mass resignations have diminished parts of the Justice Department and Environmental Protection Agency, including the divisions responsible for civil rights and environmental enforcement. Several agencies have curbed their fact-finding activities, ensuring there is little grist for the enforcement mill. Formal guidance issued by top officials has sewed confusion and injected additional supervision and control over lower-level investigators and enforcement lawyers. And reporting relationships between boots-on-the-ground staff and senior agency officials have, at times, been replaced by commands to seek approval from political appointees.
Early in President Trump’s term, a powerful group of manufacturers delivered to his deputies a “wish list” of regulations they wanted rewritten. Two years later, the Trump administration appears to have largely followed through on those requests, according to a new report. An analysis from Public Citizen, a left-leaning nonprofit consumer rights advocacy group, examined how various government agencies have responded to the 132 requests that the group, the National Association of Manufacturers, submitted to the Trump administration about two months into his presidency. Public Citizen found just 71 of those requests seemed to actually line up with major government rules on which the Trump administration could take action. Of those, government agencies — such as the Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department — moved to modify, delay or get rid of 60 of them during Trump's time in office. That's about 85 percent.
The government must hold Mark accountable. For too long, lawmakers have marveled at Facebook’s explosive growth and overlooked their responsibility to ensure that Americans are protected and markets are competitive. Any day now, the Federal Trade Commission is expected to impose a $5 billion fine on the company, but that is not enough; nor is Facebook’s offer to appoint some kind of privacy czar. After Mark’s congressional testimony last year, there should have been calls for him to truly reckon with his mistakes. Instead the legislators who questioned him were derided as too old and out of touch to understand how tech works. That’s the impression Mark wanted Americans to have, because it means little will change. We are a nation with a tradition of reining in monopolies, no matter how well intentioned the leaders of these companies may be. Mark’s power is unprecedented and un-American. It is time to break up Facebook.
The Federal Aviation Administration told U.S. airports in a letter released on Wednesday they could not install drone countermeasures without federal consent, warning they could pose an aviation safety risk by interfering with aircraft navigation and air navigation services. The FAA said only federal agencies with explicit authority should install systems designed to detect and potentially destroy drones. The agency added: "There are many related efforts that are under way that will make it easier to identify drone operators." There has been rising concern about drones near U.S. airports.
Since the crashes of two Maxes within five months—a Lion Air flight last October and an Ethiopian Airlines flight this March—the pressure and maneuvering around simulator training has struck Ludtke as essential to understanding how an emphasis on costs twisted a process that’s supposed to produce the best, safest planes. “They could have done better and should have done better, but better wasn’t an option,” says Ludtke, who started at Boeing in 1996 and holds two U.S. patents for flight crew alerting systems. Federal investigators probing the Max recently interviewed Ludtke for hours about the connection between simulator requirements and the new software system linked to the crashes, known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS. Managers didn’t merely insist to employees that no designs should lead to Level D training. They also made their desires known to the FAA team in charge of 737 training requirements, which was led by Stacey Klein, who’d previously been a pilot at now-defunct Skyway Airlines for six years. “She had no engineering background, her airplane experience was very limited,” Ludtke says. “It was just an impossible scenario.” FAA spokesman Greg Martin says the position Klein occupies, “while substantial,” is primarily that of “an organizer, facilitator, and executor of the FAA policy and guidelines,” and that in her role she calls on experts from multiple organizations.
April 20 marked the ninth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon blowout, an offshore drilling disaster that killed 11 men and triggered a pollution nightmare as uncontrolled oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico for almost three months. Last week, shortly after that anniversary, the Trump administration announced a rollback of regulations that had been written to prevent such an incident from happening again. This should horrify you. Just three years after adopting the regulations in response to public outcry and the recommendations of a presidential commission, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement has concluded that its rules caused “unnecessary burdens” on the industry.
Tuesday brings a somewhat mind-blowing announcement in the world of power plants and pollution. In a nutshell: A nonprofit artificial intelligence firm called WattTime is going to use satellite imagery to precisely track the air pollution (including carbon emissions) coming out of every single power plant in the world, in real time. And it’s going to make the data public. This is a very big deal. Poor monitoring and gaming of emissions data have made it difficult to enforce pollution restrictions on power plants. This system promises to effectively eliminate poor monitoring and gaming of emissions data. And it won’t just be regulators and politicians who see this data; it will be the public too. When it comes to environmental enforcement, the public can be more terrifying and punitive than any regulator. If any citizen group in the world can go online and pull up a list of the dirtiest power plants in their area, it eliminates one of the great informational barriers to citizen action.
A bipartisan group of three senators reintroduced legislation on Wednesday aimed at increasing the transparency of election advertisements on social media platforms, with the goal of preventing foreign actors from influencing U.S. elections. Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced The Honest Ads Act, which would require online platforms to make “all reasonable efforts” to ensure that foreign entities are not buying political ads. It would also require all digital platforms with at least 50 million monthly viewers to maintain a public file of all election-related communication purchased by an entity or group that spends over $500 on their platform. The public file would need to include the contact information of the purchaser, a description of the targeted audience, the rates charged, and the dates and times of publication of the ads. The bill would also expand the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act’s definition of “electioneering communication” to include paid internet and digital advertisements.
Congressional Democrats on Tuesday reintroduced legislation which would impose fines on credit reporting agencies for compromising customer data, a response to the massive Equifax breach. The Data Breach Prevention and Compensation Act, unveiled ahead of a Senate Banking Committee hearing on data privacy, would require credit reporting agencies to pay $100 for each consumer whose personal data is compromised in a breach. The bill was offered by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) in the upper chamber, and House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) in the lower. Warren's office estimated that if the bill was in place in 2017, credit reporting company Equifax would have been required to pay at least a $1.5 billion penalty.
The political footprint of Big Tech has become the subject of much debate in recent years. As concerns over the role played by large tech platforms during elections has grown, so has their political clout. Wary of potential regulatory scrutiny, the large tech platforms have been increasing their lobbying expenditures and campaign donations: Led by Google and Facebook, tech firms spent more than $64 million on lobbying in 2018 alone. For both Google and Facebook, 2018 was a record year in terms of spending on political influence. What distortions might be related to the tech industry’s mounting political contributions and lobbying efforts? How distortive or informative are the government relations operations of the five large tech platforms — Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, and Google? While further study is needed to accurately determine the political clout of Big Tech, it is possible to draw upon existing data to get a sense as to the source and scope of its influence.