Washington’s Best Hope – The American Prospect
This article appears in the April 2022 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
Last June, when Lina Khan was unexpectedly named the chair of the Federal Trade Commission, an FTC staffer named Jen Howard posted a picture on Twitter with the caption “#squad.” The picture (see below) featured Khan in the FTC offices, leaning against a desk alongside her fellow commissioner Rohit Chopra. The knowing smiles invited a recognition of newfound power, a self-awareness that these two young progressives were about to shake up executive boardrooms nationwide. To the small community of experts working on corporate power, it was a viral moment.
But the picture was actually taken three years earlier, when Khan came to work for Chopra at the FTC. The quiet confidence shows through despite a position of weakness: Chopra, as one of two Democrats, was outnumbered on the commission by three Republicans handpicked by Donald Trump. Even when Democrats ran the agency, it had been paralyzed since the late 1970s by a self-imposed inertia and reluctance to take on powerful interests.
Yet the self-assurance was warranted. By the end of the Trump presidency, the FTC would advance Chopra’s proposal to penalize bogus “Made in USA” labeling, take action on one of his top priorities by filing suit against Facebook for illegal monopolization, and become at least a little relevant again as a willing implementer of the public’s business.
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That picture of Chopra and Khan now hangs in a hallway at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Last October, Chopra, who just turned 40, took over as director. But the legacy he left at the FTC is remarkable. Khan, now the chair, worked for Chopra. The director of the Bureau of Competition, Holly Vedova, advised Chopra. The director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, Samuel Levine, also advised Chopra. And Jen Howard, who was Chopra’s chief of staff, is fulfilling that role for Khan. “He brings in a staff that actually today runs the FTC,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a nonprofit privacy advocate. “Rohit was exactly the ER doctor the FTC desperately needed.”
To hear it from Chopra’s end, he wasn’t the intellectual godfather of the FTC’s restoration, but a junior partner. “Sam Levine, I knew him from the Illinois attorney general’s office, prosecuting Westwood, a for-profit college chain,” he told me in an interview. “I learned so much from Lina, Sam, Holly Vedova. I brought in people I learned a lot from, I don’t know how much teaching I did.”
You will not hear Chopra take anything approaching credit; he constantly defers to his colleagues. But in just over a decade in government, he has been astonishingly effective in finding ways to make even unfavorable positions in Washington work for the public good. In this way, he has swum against a tide of lost faith in institutions that dates back decades.
We hear a constant lament from the media, the public, and even policymakers that a system with multiple veto points, unbearable gridlock, the overbearing specter of corporate money, and official cowardice in the face of all that has become essentially unnavigable. Chopra’s career puts the lie to that, according to dozens of former colleagues, public-interest partners, and regulatory experts. He has shown that a combination of understanding what’s possible, amplifying the voices who need the most help, and having the gumption to take risks can pay off.
“He’s really smart, strategic, and fearless,” said Dennis Kelleher, financial reform advocate with Better Markets. “That’s what makes him dangerous to the financial industry. You sometimes get people who are smart, strategic, or fearless, but not all three.”
Because of the numerous challenges to 21st-century governance, those who are willing and able to exploit opportunities to produce change stand out. Chopra’s unconventional fights have earned him substantial support, including from some Republicans. He may be a reluctant role model. But he’s developed a new pathway for policy triumph in a divided America.
ROHIT CHOPRA WAS BORN in Plainfield, New Jersey, in 1982, and his family moved up and down the state before settling in Camden County, across the border from Philadelphia. True to his desire to avoid any personal spotlight, almost no information about Chopra’s childhood has ever been reported, and when I asked him what shaped his worldview in his formative years, he deflected and talked about the financial crisis, which happened in his mid-twenties.
But one aspect of Chopra’s life before public service was extensively covered in real time: his year as president of the Undergraduate Council at Harvard, where he was a government major. Chopra wrote in The Harvard Crimson that he always considered student government “completely bogus” in high school, but he saw too many frustrating aspects of student life at Harvard—a place he “love[d] to hate”—that he believed could be fixed.
The student presidency prefigured his government posts: a meager, somewhat thankless job without much formal power. Chopra described his predecessors on the council as “spend[ing] more time taking attendance than discussing the issues people care about.” But in that year, Chopra was able to add multiple new student activities like dollar movie nights, provide input on a broad curricular review, and fight preregistration and enrollment caps for popular classes. The council’s influence on student issues grew; Chopra riled up the mayor of Cambridge to stall a bid to move certain dormitories off the main campus.
Chopra’s relationship with administrators would often turn adversarial, yet earned him broad respect. As one faculty member told him, “Rohit, you have mastered the art of saying ‘fuck you’ with a smile.” One of those administrators was Larry Summers, then president of Harvard. “Professor Summers and I had a very spirited set of engagements,” Chopra told me. “I thought that we had certain people running the university who were pretty unaccountable.” One of Chopra’s classmates put it differently, thanking him at the end of his term for “being brave enough to tell Larry Summers … ‘to shove it.’”
Because of the numerous challenges to 21st-century governance, those who are willing and able to exploit opportunities to produce change stand out.
The young striver caught the eye of a professor at Harvard’s law school named Elizabeth Warren. “Drew Faust [a history professor and colleague of Warren’s from when she taught at Penn, who would succeed Summers as Harvard’s president] said there is an undergrad who is just terrific,” Warren told the Prospect. When she went to Washington to set up the CFPB, her brainchild that became reality in the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, Warren heard from Faust again that Chopra wanted to join the agency.
In between Harvard and the CFPB, Chopra had earned a business degree at Penn’s Wharton School (“He didn’t come over to the law school to get a real education,” Warren joked) and did a stint at McKinsey, the controversial management consultant. “I really got an in-depth education in how boardrooms make decisions and how Wall Street makes decisions,” he said. “It’s not what the textbooks teach you: investing to dominate, to exclude, to conquer.”
The financial crisis, where millions were duped into high-risk mortgages based on false and fraudulent promises and robbed of their life savings, revealed the risks of that decision-making. A system ostensibly designed to help ordinary people build wealth and get ahead instead destroyed their opportunity. It spurred Chopra to take what he thought would be “a little break” from his private-sector career to become part of the solution. A new agency with the mission to defend consumers from scam artists and financial crimes seemed like the perfect fit.
When Chopra arrived at the CFPB in its early weeks, nobody had any titles. Chopra occupied his time rifling through the U.S. Code to understand things like how to set up a non-bank supervision system. “No one digs into the weeds of understanding authorities and power like him,” said one colleague from that time. “That’s why people are successful. It’s called doing the work.”
Warren hired Chopra without a particular job in mind. But within a few weeks, he came to her with an idea. “He told me what he wanted to do, student loans,” Warren said. “And I said, ‘Great, that’s your part.’”
DODD-FRANK SECTION 1035 established a “private education loan ombudsman” at CFPB (The Department of Education had a similar position for government-issued loans) whose set of functions were trifling at best. The ombudsman could informally collect, analyze, and attempt to resolve borrower complaints, make recommendations on student loan policy to other officials, and file an annual report on the office’s activities.
It was maybe the least effective division in the entire agency on paper. “It was kind of expressly written to not have too much teeth,” said Angela Peoples, who was a student activist just a couple years out of college when she became one of Chopra’s first two hires at the agency. “That’s why we were able to get it included, the people lobbying against it thought it wouldn’t be very powerful.”
Arguably more forbidding than the meager authorities was the invisibility of the struggles of student borrowers. CFPB was birthed out of the mortgage crisis. There was a major student loan kickback scandal in 2007, where private lenders paid universities to keep students away from the federal direct loan program. And breakdowns in student loan servicing were similar to problems with the servicing of mortgages. But these rarely made headlines.
“There was a dominant school of thought that we have to get everyone into college no matter how much they borrow,” Chopra said. “There were a million borrowers defaulting every year. It was very clear to me that something was seriously wrong, and we needed to be very unambiguous about what the problems were. We needed basic market information.”
That thirst for research drove an insight that making the office a listening post for legal services groups, consumer advocates, and students could infuse it with some weight. “We realized early that the Department of Education never thought about the effects of student debt on people that owe it,” said Mike Pierce, another early Chopra hire. “[Chopra] took time to listen to those people that served those communities for decades.” Forums with stakeholders were set up quickly. A complaint database for student loan borrowers, which consumer groups helped publicize, would eventually add tens of thousands of perspectives.
“They did these comment requests which were unusual because they were fairly open-ended,” said Deanne Loonin, the former director of the National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project. “They would say, ‘Tell us what you’re seeing out there.’ The policy initiatives really came out of those.”
The ombudsman’s office began preparing a comprehensive report on the student loan market, combining government and private data. Chopra decided to preview it in a speech before the Consumer Bankers Association in March 2012. He let fly a surprising statistic: Borrowers were carrying over $1 trillion in student debt. An excerpt from the speech was posted at the CFPB website and became known internally as the trillion-dollar blog.
This was a much higher figure than previously estimated, jumping by $117 billion just in federal loans in 2011 and surpassing credit card debt to become the second-largest debt pile in the country, behind mortgages. “It seems that this market is too big to fail,” Chopra warned in the speech. The debt wasn’t just growing through incoming students taking out loans, but through accruing balances from those out of school who couldn’t make their interest payments. And it wouldn’t just impose hardships on students. Chopra made the point that debtors with large student loan balances would likely delay major purchases like cars or mortgages, slowing the economic recovery.
“Too much debt means too much risk for a generation of young people,” Chopra said in the speech. “Large levels of debt might also impose immediate problems for the rest of us.”
By that time, CFPB had assisted the Education Department on a simplified “financial aid shopping sheet” to easily compare information across colleges and universities. It was supervising private student lenders and had set up a student loan repayment assistant to help borrowers understand their options. But the trillion-dollar blog harnessed perhaps a policymaker’s most powerful tool: the public megaphone. “It focused policymakers on the crisis, became the first talking point,” said Pierce.
Periodic updates on the running total of outstanding student debt marked Chopra’s tenure. The annual ombudsman reports built on the narrative by highlighting issues borrowers had with servicing and repaying loans. It was a manifestation of how the agency was designed to be responsive to the public in ways that the federal government normally isn’t. “By taking a moment to name this trillion-dollar milestone, he shined a light on the whole picture of student debt,” said Peoples. “It said this isn’t an individual problem, it’s not just about bad actors.”
Pierce, who later became head of the Student Borrower Protection Center, an advocacy group for students, says that the current debate over whether the Biden administration should use its authority to cancel student debt wouldn’t have been possible without Chopra’s direction. “He used his strategic sense to reorient the entire government around student debt,” Pierce said. “If you didn’t have that conversation, you don’t get to the conversation about cancellation.”
UNDER CHOPRA, THE OMBUDSMAN’S office would also become a catchall for issues affecting students. Military issues were highlighted as a canary in the coal mine of financial services breakdowns. Because military members move a lot, and have special protections like interest rate caps under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), they don’t fit cleanly into the automated customer systems financial firms use to save money. “The service member is usually the first type of customer to get lost in the system,” he explained. “It’s a sign, a smoke signal that they can’t handle complexity.”
Holly Petraeus, then the CFPB’s lead on service member issues, traveled with Chopra to military bases and Defense Department conferences to discuss financial predation of active-duty military. “He’s a very quick study,” she said, understanding quirks in federal laws like the GI Bill, which gives service members education benefits. The for-profit college industry, which offered diplomas of questionable utility and often sunk students deep into debt, was bound to only receive 90 percent of its income from the federal government, like from federal student loans. But because of a loophole, GI Bill benefits don’t count under that rule as federal dollars. This meant that every GI Bill student enrolled would allow the industry to bring in more money through student loans; it made military members prime targets. “They saw them as dollar signs in uniform,” Chopra said.
In 2014, CFPB sued major for-profit chains Corinthian Colleges and ITT Tech for pressuring students into high-risk loans and misleading them about the value of the diplomas offered. Within two years, Corinthian and ITT Tech would shut down, in large part due to sanctions and investigations from the Education Department, which held the purse strings on student loans.
“Nobody digs into the weeds of understanding authorities and power like him,” said one colleague of Chopra’s.
In another for-profit college action, Chopra elevated ideas from wronged borrowers, particularly the Corinthian debt strikers, that they had the right to use “defense to repayment,” a clause in the Higher Education Act, to forgive debt in cases of fraud. The Education Department resisted this for years, but it was harder to do so with support from another arm of the government. “What it’s like to work with Rohit, he would say, ‘You have the power to do this if you want to,’” said Peoples. “It’s just a question of whether we’re choosing to do it, and if not we have to ask why.”
For-profits were one of a series of areas where Chopra and the CFPB spurred other agencies to get their jobs done. The CFPB complaint database tracked a pattern of numerous service members explaining how Sallie Mae wasn’t offering the 6 percent rate cap on student loans required under the SCRA. Referring the information to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division resulted in a $60 million settlement that compensated borrowers. Another section of complaints discovered junk fees layered onto prepaid cards that students used to access living expenses from student loans and Pell grants. The Department of Education had rulemaking authority to deal with those fees; they did so to eliminate the worst practices.
“It wasn’t just about what we could do but where were all the tools across the government, what were the processes we can use to make change,” Chopra said. “I always thought you judge by results. The public doesn’t care which agency does it.”
But Chopra is actually responsible for some of this work outside of CFPB. In the final year of the Obama administration, he transferred to the Education Department as a special adviser. By that point, the agency (in part because of CFPB’s urging) had aligned with the consensus that much greater scrutiny needed to be placed on colleges and servicers to ensure that student loans weren’t being used as a profit center. It got Chopra familiar with other sets of tools to police the industry. And it paid off; ITT was cut off from federal student loans during Chopra’s tenure, leading to the college’s dissolution.
Financial firms didn’t want to see anyone rousing the machinery of the federal government, and they groused about Chopra to anyone and everyone. In a recently uncovered email from 2015, Kevin Modany, then the CEO of ITT Tech, told his lawyers that Chopra was an “economic terrorist” and that he “should be sent to Guantanamo Bay for about a decade of R&R; which should include an aggressive regimen of ‘water sports’!”
ROHIT CHOPRA WAS NOMINATED as a commissioner to the Federal Trade Commission in October 2017. He didn’t get confirmed until May 2018. Chopra spent the interim period strategizing.
The FTC was envisioned as a pillar of the movement to counteract corporate power when it was established during the Progressive Era, with the power to write and enforce rules around economic concentration, consumer protection, and, later in its life, privacy. But the commission had been quiet since the late 1970s, when an effort to limit advertising to children generated a tremendous backlash from corporate America, which persuaded Congress to roll back some of the agency’s powers. Ronald Reagan’s first chair, James Miller, was the first economist put in charge of the FTC, and he not only curtailed the agency’s reach but broke its spirit. “To say that the commission for the last several decades has been ineffective is too kind,” said Jeff Chester. “The agency is an unindicted co-conspirator when it comes to the eroding of democracy in the U.S.”
Chopra recognized that underneath the corporate capture and regulatory inertia was an entity that could make a critical contribution to a fairer economy. The FTC could serve as the primary data collection agency to help policymakers understand what was happening in markets. It had expansive and largely unused powers around privacy and consumer protection. Chopra would later write with Lina Khan an academic paper showing that the FTC had rulemaking authority under Section 5 of its statute that could revitalize antitrust enforcement.
“These agencies have a huge amount of tools they don’t use,” Chopra told me. “I’d be told by the lawyers, ‘We can’t do that.’ And then they would research it and say we can.”
Chopra and Jen Howard, who followed him from CFPB to the FTC, mapped out some basic themes for his tenure, following much of the playbook that made him effective as student loan ombudsman. The core demand was for better agency enforcement and more market competition. Despite not having the votes to set the agenda, he thought he could bend the agency’s posture anyway. It all came together in a memo, sent directly to the other four commissioners, just nine days after taking over his seat.
In what was known as the “repeat offenders” memo, Chopra outlined a commitment to stop corporate recidivism, where companies break the law over and over yet receive hardly any additional sanctions as a result. He recommended that the FTC fire senior executives and board members, cut executive compensation, or close business lines to reverse the incentives that led to repeat violations. “FTC orders are not suggestions,” he wrote, staking out territory that he would come back to in written opinions on practically every enforcement order.
For decades, the commission strived for bipartisanship as a cover to preempt attacks on its authority. Dissents on enforcement orders were discouraged; in fact, there was an informal policy for commissioners to submit private dissents to staff that never got released. “This was seen as how the agency would survive, with pretend bipartisanship,” said Chester.
Chopra didn’t comply with this. After the repeat offenders memo, he issued a litany of dissenting opinions accompanying his votes, taking issue with “weak, no-consequences settlements” or merger transactions with “no noteworthy benefits to customers.” The dissents told a story of what an active, aggressive FTC would look like, and put pressure on not just his fellow commissioners but agency staff to up their game. “Lots of people thought they were doing a good job,” Chopra said. “I thought it was important to demonstrate all of the ways the agency could make a difference.”
This was more than just playing the good-soldier role of a Democrat opposing Republicans. Chopra was attacking a self-satisfied status quo punctuated by bipartisan failure that led to unending corporate dominance. It was a conscious effort to embarrass the agency into action. Chester, who has lobbied the FTC as a privacy advocate for decades, told me that Chopra was seen inside the agency as “kind of a traitor.”
But the grumbling did not dissuade Chopra. One dissent, in a case called Your Therapy Source that unearthed multiple employers conspiring over text messages to suppress wages but imposed no penalties on the ringleader, led Chopra to publicly refer the matter to the Justice Department. In late 2020, DOJ indicted the organizer of the scheme, and the case would become the most wide-reaching criminal antitrust action against wage-fixing in history. Like so many Chopra efforts, it set a trend.
FROM THE OUTSIDE, Chopra was seen as someone who was finally willing to break down the walls between the FTC and the small businesses and consumers who relied on it for their livelihoods. Keith Miller, a Subway franchisee with stores in Nevada and California who works for the American Association of Franchisees and Dealers (AAFD), explained to me that the FTC in prior years had admitted that, despite having responsibility to enforce rules around franchising, they had done little on the matter. The franchising rule at the time was weak and only applied to disclosures before the sale. Chopra sought Miller out to talk things over.
“When you walk in to talk to a person of that status, you wonder, am I starting with a blank slate? Am I going to have to spell franchise to him?” Miller said. “He starts asking about Section 5. I say, ‘That’s great, what the hell is that?’ I’m now the idiot, I’m the blank slate.” Miller told me that he’d talked to franchise lawyers who spent 30 years without getting close to a commissioner. “They said, ‘I don’t know how the sandwich guy got in,’” he joked.
Chopra made some simple changes on franchising, starting with how franchisees could report complaints. The standard complaint form was geared toward fraud complaints and scam artists. This changed to one contoured specifically to franchisees. “The fact that they did that tells people they will pay attention,” Miller said. A recent FTC lawsuit against Burgerim, an Israeli fast-food joint, alleges that the company targeted veterans with discount programs but failed to disclose key information, set up potential franchisees for failure, and pocketed the fees without giving refunds. Miller said it was the first FTC action against a franchise since 2007. “Now there’s a risk of being caught,” he said.
When Chopra was nominated to run CFPB, the AAFD offered their endorsement, despite his progressive profile. “I’m a Reagan Republican,” Miller said. “So much of what I see in franchising shouldn’t be a red-blue issue. It’s just right and wrong.”
Another area where Chopra defied convention was on the FTC’s Made in USA authority. This was intended to police companies who falsely affixed “Made in USA” labels to their products, but the commission hadn’t enforced it. Typically, the problem would be solved through staff “closing letters,” which imposed no penalty as long as the offending company removed the labels. Sometimes the companies, like a high-profile example from Walmart, would continue to violate the ordinance after the closing letter, without further FTC follow-up.
Chopra recalled visiting with a small manufacturer of high-quality boots in Detroit, who told him how his business couldn’t survive if knockoff artists overseas could spoof his product on Amazon with a false label. He saw this as another area where the commission wasn’t using its power.
“These agencies have a huge amount of tools they don’t use,” Chopra told me.
Congress had given the FTC the ability to write its own Made in USA rule in the 1990s. Chopra found support from Republicans on the issue in Congress and the White House. Peter Navarro, the top Trump trade adviser, became an internal champion. “He wanted to get stuff done,” Navarro said in an interview. “What I noted was the deep institutional resistance, the arrogance of the traditional Republicans that loved to offshore our jobs and turned their noses up at Buy America.”
After two years of highlighting the issue and building support, the FTC adopted a staff report on Made in USA and proposed a rule, which was finalized last July. Despite Chopra’s position in the minority, the staff report was adopted unanimously and the proposed rule was approved 4-1. In an early test of the FTC’s seriousness, the commission settled with Williams-Sonoma on a Made in USA case, and didn’t just file a closing letter, but took a $1 million fine. “The MAGA folks on the Republican side should embrace him, the traditional working-class Dems should embrace him,” Navarro said. “He can build Republican support for these issues.”
That was also true in the case of Facebook, long a huge missed opportunity for the FTC. In 2012, the Democratic majority on the commission was in possession of a smoking-gun internal document during deliberations over the Facebook-Instagram merger. Written by a top Facebook executive, the document stated flatly that Facebook was buying Instagram to eliminate a competitor. But despite this, at least one Democrat failed to give their support to block the merger.
With Chopra on the commission, it had a second chance in 2019 to scrutinize Facebook’s business model and investigate illegal monopolization. Despite the Trump majority, the FTC approved a case against Facebook, and part of the rationale was the company’s illegal acquisitions of rivals like Instagram. The case was initially dismissed but refiled, and the second version survived a motion to dismiss. The issue is of long-standing interest to Chopra, who was one of Facebook’s earliest users when his classmate Mark Zuckerberg designed it at Harvard.
Today, the FTC is respected if not feared under Khan’s direction. But that springs from the often lonely work of her predecessor. “The fact that we have a great commission today,” said Jeff Chester, “is a legacy of Rohit Chopra.”
THE CFPB HAS BEEN through three stages in its short history, argues Adam Levitin, a law professor at Georgetown University and a key financial reform ally. CFPB 1.0, in its inception under its first director Rich Cordray, labored under a harsh political spotlight and an unclear legal future. It was one Republican legislative move or unfavorable Supreme Court ruling away from oblivion, and Cordray proceeded cautiously to not wake the bear. An eventual legal case, Seila Law, reaffirmed the constitutionality of the bureau, at the expense of allowing presidents to fire the director at will. Paradoxically, this ruling also let President Biden install Chopra; under the old system, Trump-era director Kathy Kraninger would have been eligible to stay until December 2023.
CFPB 2.0 was in the hands of Trump lackeys Mick Mulvaney and then Kraninger. While Mulvaney was ideologically dedicated to the agency’s destruction, he was running the Office of Management and Budget while aiming to dismantle CFPB in his spare time. Handing the reins over to Kraninger relieved the pressure in an odd way. “Gosh, did the bureau luck out with Kraninger,” Levitin said. She had no background in financial services or consumer protection, and no ambitions to be transformative. The agency suffered from some inertia, and certainly let financial predators get away with violations. But it “came out pretty intact,” according to Levitin.
Now, with version 3.0, Republicans don’t have as big a target on the bureau, much of the political pressure is off, and there’s not the same kind of full-scale post-Trump rebuilding project as in other agencies. And instead of Chopra having to cajole the bureaucracy, he controls it, in the most powerful position he’s ever had. “Rohit is a damn-the-torpedoes, full-speed-ahead guy,” Levitin said. “His view of the world is every shot you don’t take, you miss.”
Established in an era of complex mortgage innovations and debt collection, as CFPB cracked down the financial system has attempted to migrate to unregulated corners. Fintech firms feature peer-to-peer lending and robo-financial advisers. Cryptocurrency companies spin up novel coins and NFTs. Old schemes are dressed up for the digital age; layaway is called “Buy Now Pay Later” on an app; payday loans are now “earned wage access” products that offer an advance on salary for a fee. And the bigger tech platforms are circling, figuring out whether they can collect consumer data and get in on the profit-taking outside of the regulatory perimeter. All of these innovations maintain that they are not credit, or not eligible for regulation under current rules. That’s the game.
“Back when I was talking to Congress about the idea for a consumer agency,” said Sen. Warren, “one of the arguments I made was we need an agency because the industry can innovate ways to cheat faster than Congress can respond.” Even with all the innovation, the newfangled products are either selling credit or smoothing payment. Though CFPB came out of the mortgage crisis, its tools are broad enough to empower the bureau to solve the next crisis.
Some of Chopra’s older priorities remain in place at CFPB. He’s going to seek tougher penalties on repeat offenders, as he advocated for at the FTC. He’s looking into private lending from for-profit colleges, restarting another fight.
But one of the first things Chopra did as director was to ask tech companies for information on their payment products, the associated fees, how they are marketed to consumers, and what is done with customer data. He’s examining bias in artificial-intelligence programs that inform algorithmic lending and could lead to “digital redlining” of customers. One of his first enforcement actions was against JPay, a monopoly provider of web-based financial services to prisoners, for forcing incarcerated people leaving prison to get account balances and government benefits on prepaid cards with high fees.
“Rohit’s the right guy at the right time to deal with tech and consumer finance. If we don’t get this right we are screwed,” said one colleague at the bureau who wasn’t authorized to go on the record.
Chopra also put out a request for public comment on “junk fees” imposed on top of ordinary charges for goods and services—things like late fees, levies for balance transfers, and service fees for everything from concert tickets to use of resort hotel amenities. Coming up with a pithy name for this array of charges often explained through bloodless, technical jargon is a Chopra hallmark.
“Here’s what’s quite important about CFPB, we can order information and look under the hood,” Chopra said. “It allows us to understand how the business model works.” And what he has learned is that even signaling an area of focus can accomplish results.
Last December, the CFPB released a report about one particular junk fee, the overdraft charges incurred by individuals when they take out more from their bank account than they have available. The charge is typically around $35 per incident, and the report showed that this was a dependable $15.5 billion profit center, earned off the backs of the poorest customers. In 2019, the biggest banks—JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America—were responsible for 44 percent of the total. Chopra announced that the agency would engage in “a range of regulatory interventions” on companies that earned excessive amounts from overdraft.
CFPB’s signaling that it would use its supervisory powers created a virtuous circle, making it easier for banks to eliminate overdraft fees than fight.
This was not an earth-shattering proclamation; overdraft was a known issue for years. But Chopra’s insistence that it would be an area of focus had immediate impact. The same month as the CFPB report, Capital One announced it would end overdraft fees, and that overdrawn requests would instead be denied. The next month, Bank of America announced it would cut its $35 fee to $10. JPMorgan Chase announced that customers could go up to $50 below their account balance and avoid fees, and later added a one-day grace period. Wells Fargo added a grace period too. And in February, Citigroup nixed overdraft fees.
Combined with smaller competitors, that’s nearly a clean sweep of changes, months before any rule limiting or barring overdraft fees could be published. CFPB’s signaling that it would use its supervisory powers created a virtuous circle making it easier for banks to eliminate the fees than fight.
Similarly, after Chopra hounded credit reporting companies that they would be held responsible for consumer credit reports that have widespread errors on medical debt, the companies decided to drop most medical debt from credit reports.
Some financial reform advocates don’t trust these voluntary efforts. “There needs to be a rulemaking so Capital One or Bank of America or Wells doesn’t restart them under the radar,” said Elyse Hicks with Americans for Financial Reform. But to Chopra, supervisory work doesn’t forestall rulemaking; it complements it. “I do feel a lot of urgency to get things done quickly and not wait for a big ta-da moment,” Chopra said. “Let me be clear: There will be rulemaking. But we have to be mindful that there are many ways to make markets more fair and competitive.”
The drive Chopra feels toward protecting consumers carries over to his own staff. One colleague told me he calls staff to make sure they’re signed up for the best health and life insurance. He told me that he runs his own benefits orientations because agency sessions are “kinda unhelpful.”
The overall goal is to create a competitive market so financial firms aren’t basing their business models on how much cheating of customers they can get away with, but on how they can offer a better product than the next guy. As in all his other positions, Chopra is harnessing the information collected from the ground level to force that competitive market through. This is why the grumbling from the industry has begun. “The industry is having a hard time adjusting to a serious cop back on the consumer protection beat,” said Dennis Kelleher.
That desire for competitive, open markets triggered one of the biggest fights of Chopra’s early tenure, which didn’t even happen inside the agency. The CFPB director also sits on the board of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Despite Democrats having a 3-1 edge on that board, Trump holdover Jelena McWilliams still held the chair, and attempted to use her power to block the will of the majority.
McWilliams held up a request for information on bank mergers—a very Chopra-like attempt to understand markets—despite majority support. “This was about the most minimal thing the FDIC could do,” Kelleher said. “When the head of the FDIC will not agree to put out an RFI, then you know you have the leader of an agency that has no interest in fulfilling that agency’s role.”
Chopra led an effort to approve the request through a private vote outside of an FDIC meeting, a legal process under the bylaws. But McWilliams contested the vote, spilling the fight into the public arena. It was a classic Chopra flex, finding a method buried in statute to get things accomplished and isolate opponents. Knowing that her power to obstruct was tenuous, McWilliams didn’t last long, quitting the agency on New Year’s Eve. The new acting chair, Chopra ally Martin Gruenberg, can now move forward on bank oversight and regulatory actions on everything from cryptocurrency to climate risk.
The past 40 years since Ronald Reagan has led many to wonder if America can possibly restrain capitalism’s abuses amid what seems like a broken, ineffectual government. Rohit Chopra’s tour through government reveals a blueprint for how to get things done. Collecting research wherever it’s housed can inform where markets are headed. Digging into statutes can yield a bounty of authorities to protect the public. Going public with a model for how markets should work, even if it offends putative allies, can shame and browbeat them into action. Choosing battlefields that have been dormant can shake up the bureaucracy and draw faith with forgotten and vulnerable populations.
The status quo is powerful, but these types of actions can knock it off balance. And it defuses the cynical notion that America is ungovernable, that Big Money and gridlocked ideology resist progress. Chopra exemplifies what government can accomplish when just one person inside it cares enough to make it work.