Congress may have now have the opportunity to disapprove by a simple majority vote the CFPB’s disparate impact theory of assignee liability for so-called dealer “markup” disparities as a result of a determination by the General Accountability Office (GAO) that the CFPB’s Bulletin describing its legal theory is a “rule” subject to override under the Congressional Review Act (CRA).
We previously blogged about press reports that the GAO had accepted a request from Senator Patrick Toomey to determine whether CFPB Bulletin 2013-02, titled “Indirect Auto Lending and Compliance with the Equal Credit Opportunity Act” (the “Bulletin”), is a “rule” within the scope of the CRA. (“Indirect auto lenders” is the term used by the Bureau to refer to persons, such as banks and sales finance companies, that are engaged in the business of accepting assignments of automobile retail installment sale contracts from dealerships.) We subsequently suggested that a recent GAO determination that the interagency leveraged lending guidance is a “rule” subject to the CRA foreshadowed a similar determination for the CFPB indirect auto finance guidance reflected in the Bulletin.
As it turns out, we were right. The GAO issued its decision on December 5, 2017, concluding that the Bulletin is a “rule” subject to the CRA because “it is a general statement of policy designed to assist indirect auto lenders to ensure they are operating in compliance with [the] ECOA and Regulation B, as applied to dealer markup and compensation policies.”
The Bulletin is an official guidance document issued by the Bureau on March 21, 2013. It effectively previewed the Bureau’s subsequent ECOA enforcement actions against assignees of automobile retail installment sale contracts (RISCs), setting forth the views of the CFPB concerning what it characterized as a significant ECOA compliance risk associated with an asserted assignee “policy” of “allowing” dealerships to negotiate the annual percentage rate under a retail installment sale contract by “marking up” the wholesale buy rate established by a prospective assignee. The Bulletin’s intent to establish its enforcement and supervisory approach with respect to the subject practice was unmistakably clear not only from its text but also from the tag line in the accompanying press release – “Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to Hold Auto Lenders Accountable for Illegal Discriminatory Markup.”
Before responding to Senator’s Toomey’s request, in accordance with its standard procedure for responding to requests of this nature, the GAO solicited and obtained the CFPB’s views. The Bureau responded to the GAO by letter dated July 7, 2017.
The legal analysis reflected in the GAO opinion is straightforward. Subject to exceptions not relevant, the CRA adopts the Administrative Procedure Act definition of a “rule,” which states, in relevant part, that a rule is “”the whole or a part of an agency statement of general . . . applicability and future effect designed to implement, interpret, or prescribe law or policy . . ..” The GAO framed the question presented as “whether a nonbinding general statement of policy, which provides guidance on how [the] CFPB will exercise its discretionary enforcement powers, is a rule under [the] CRA.” It agreed with the CFPB’s assertion that the Bulletin “is a non-binding guidance document” that “identifies potential risk areas and provides general suggestions for compliance” with the ECOA.
The GAO rejected, however, the CFPB’s argument that the CRA does not apply to the Bulletin because the Bulletin has no legal effect on regulated entities. Specifically, the Bureau had argued “taken as a whole the CRA can logically apply only to agency documents that have [binding] legal effect.” The GAO concluded that “CRA requirements apply to general statements of policy, which, by definition, are not legally binding.”
The GAO letter explains that, “to strengthen congressional oversight of agency rulemaking,” the CRA requires all federal agencies, including independent regulatory agencies, to submit a report on each new rule to both Houses of Congress and to the Comptroller General before it can take effect.” (emphasis added) The CFPB acknowledged that it had not complied with this formal reporting requirement because it did not believe the Bulletin was a “rule” subject to the CRA reporting requirement. In response to the GAO decision, Senator Toomey issued a press release stating that “I intend to do everything in my power to repeal this ill-conceived rule using the Congressional Review Act.”
As explained in prior blog posts, the CRA establishes a streamlined procedure pursuant to which Congress may enact, by simple majority vote, a joint resolution disapproving a “rule.” A joint resolution of disapproval passed by Congress is presented to the President for executive action. If approved by the President, the joint resolution is enacted into law and assigned a Public Law number. If a joint resolution of disapproval is enacted into law, the disapproved rule “may not be reissued in substantially the same form, and a new rule that is substantially the same as such a rule may not be issued, unless the reissued or new rule is specifically authorized by a law enacted after the date of the joint resolution disapproving the original rule.” Thus, the enactment of a joint resolution of disapproval has a preclusive effect on future regulatory action.
According to a Congressional Research Service report, in prior instances where the GAO determined that the agency action satisfied the CRA definition of a “rule” and joint resolutions of disapproval were subsequently introduced, “the Senate has considered the publication in the Congressional Record of the official GAO opinions . . . as the trigger date for the initiation period to submit a disapproval resolution and for the action period during which such a resolution qualifies for expedited consideration in the Senate.” If a joint resolution of disapproval is introduced, it therefore would appear that the CRA clock may start to run for expedited consideration by the Senate once the GAO opinion is published in the Congressional Record.
So, what does all of this mean for the automobile sales finance industry? We think there are several important implications. First, the GAO’s decision strengthens the argument that the CFPB’s effort to regulate dealer pricing of RISCs should have been pursued through a rulemaking proceeding, rather than through “guidance” and enforcement actions.
Second, the GAO determination means that Congress could override the Bulletin by means of a joint resolution of disapproval, with a majority vote that could not be avoided by a Senate filibuster. Given the Republican opposition to the CFPB’s pursuit of this issue, and the Democratic support for auto dealers as well (expressed in letters from members of Congress to the CFPB), there seems to be a fair chance of a CRA disapproval resolution passing. Indeed, as Senator Toomey noted in his press release, the House of Representatives passed the Reforming CFPB Indirect Auto Financing Guidance Act in November 2015 by a bipartisan vote of 332-96.
What would the enactment of a joint resolution of disapproval mean? Obviously, it would mean the Bulletin would be null and void. But since the Bulletin was non-binding anyway and the CFPB did not comply with the CRA reporting requirement, what difference would it make?
Opponents of the CFPB’s disparate impact theory of liability would argue that the override of the guidance is, by definition, a Congressional repudiation of its content – the legal and factual theories of liability contained in the Bulletin. The corollary of this compelling argument is that the override would preclude not only another similar “rule,” but also that which is inherent in the existence of such a “rule” – its application to regulated entities in supervisory activities or enforcement actions. This repudiation would be permanent (unless altered by a subsequent Congressional enactment), and might therefore offer a lasting end to the CFPB’s efforts to regulate dealer pricing through banks and sales finance companies, rather than the potentially temporary hiatus that could be brought about by new leadership at the CFPB.
We hope that Congress will override the Bulletin under the CRA, and possibly put a final end to this highly questionable legal and factual ECOA theory.