We previously reported that Congress might have the opportunity to disapprove the CFPB’s disparate impact theory of assignee liability for so-called auto dealer “markup” disparities because the CFPB Bulletin describing its theory was determined by the General Accountability Office (GAO) to be a “rule” subject to override under the Congressional Review Act (CRA).  Our hope became a reality late this afternoon when the House of Representatives passed, by a bipartisan vote of 234 to 175, a joint resolution stating that Congress:

“[D]isapproves the rule submitted by the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection relating to ‘Indirect Auto Lending and Compliance with the Equal Credit Opportunity Act’ (CFPB Bulletin 2013-02 (March 21, 2013), and printed in the Congressional Record on December 6, 2017, . . . along with a letter of opinion from the [GAO] dated December 5, 2017, that the Bulletin is a rule under the Congressional Review Act), and such rule shall have no force or effect.”

The Senate previously passed this joint resolution on April 18, 2018 by a vote of 51 to 47.  It has been reported that President Trump will sign the joint resolution into law when it is presented to him for executive action.  Like every other legislative measure that is passed by Congress and signed by the President of the United States, the joint resolution of disapproval will be assigned a Public Law number and published in Statutes at Large.  See, e.g., Pub. L. No. 115-74, 131 Stat. 1243 (joint resolution disapproving of CFPB rule relating to arbitration agreements).

The Bulletin

The Bulletin is an official guidance document – a species of what one scholar has characterized as “regulatory dark matter” – that previewed the Bureau’s subsequent ECOA enforcement actions against assignees of automobile retail installment sale contracts (“RISCs”).  It set forth the CFPB’s views concerning what it characterized as a significant ECOA compliance risk associated with an asserted assignee “policy” of “allowing” dealerships to negotiate the retail annual percentage rate (APR) under their RISCs by “marking up” the wholesale buy rate established by a prospective assignee.  The Bulletin’s intent to establish and prioritize a supervisory and enforcement initiative with respect to the asserted 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.”  Indeed, the blog post that we published on the day the Bulletin was issued was titled “The CFPB previews its coming auto finance fair lending enforcement actions” and the associated webinar that we then hosted was titled, appropriately, “Auto Finance Industry in the CFPB’s Crosshairs.”

The CFPB initiative regarding so-called dealer “mark up” was premised upon what we believe may fairly be characterized, in the parlance of Inclusive Communities, as a disparate impact claim that is “abusive” of banks and sales finance companies that acquire RISCs from independent, unaffiliated dealerships, because it is based on a factual and legal theory that is highly suspect, and in particular seeks to establish causation through the use of statistics alone, which Inclusive Communities holds is improper.  The initiative proved to be highly controversial and became a lightning rod for media, industry, and Congressional criticism of the Bureau.  The industry criticism is probably best reflected and documented in the AFSA study titled “Fair Lending: Implications for the Indirect Auto Finance Market”, an Executive Summary of which is available here.  The congressional criticism included a trilogy of investigative reports prepared by the House Financial Services Committee Majority Staff titled  “Unsafe at Any Bureaucracy: CFPB Junk Science and Indirect Auto Lending,Unsafe at Any Bureaucracy, Part II: How the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection Removed Anti-Fraud Safeguards to Achieve Political Goals and “Unsafe at Any Bureaucracy, Part III: The CFPB’s Vitiated Legal Case Against Auto Lenders.”

We also have written previously about some of the many legal and factual flaws inherent in the approach taken by the Bureau and reflected in the now congressionally-disapproved Bulletin.  See, e.g., “The CFPB Stretches ECOA Past the Breaking Point,” CFPB Monitor (Feb. 21, 2013); Auto Finance and Disparate Impact: Substantive Lessons Learned from Class Certification Decisions,” Consumer Fin. Servs. L. Rep., Vol. 18, Issue 21 (May 1, 2015).   Indeed, in our blog post dated February 21, 2013 – one month before the issuance of the Bulletin – we noted that “there are several things about potential enforcement actions in this area that make them profoundly unfair, and which should cause the CFPB to refrain from pursuing enforcement based on this flawed theory.”  Accordingly, it should surprise no one that the Bulletin has become the first guidance document to be disapproved by Congress pursuant to the CRA.

Application of the CRA to the Bulletin

Some have, and others undoubtedly will, criticize this use of the CRA and seek to downplay the significance of the adoption of a Public Law disapproving the Bulletin.  We take issue with these critiques, and have engaged in some spirited “back and forth” with Professor Adam Levitin at Georgetown Law Center regarding this subject.  We previously replied to a message that Prof. Levitin sent to one of us on Twitter after the GAO issued its determination that the Bulletin is a “rule” subject to congressional review.  More recently, Prof. Levitin posted a Credit Slips Blog post titled “Congressional Review Act Confusion:  Indirect Auto Lending Guidance Edition (a/k/a The Fast & the Pointless)” in which he made various assertions regarding the CRA’s applicability to the Bulletin, and the consequences of its disapproval by Congress (in his opinion, basically none).  Since the impact of CRA disapproval of this CFPB Bulletin appears to be the subject of some debate, we wanted to take this opportunity to explain our view about why Congress’ action is so significant.

CRA Definition of a “Rule”

In his blog post, Prof. Levitin asserts that the Bulletin in not a “rule” subject to congressional review for various reasons.  These reasons include suggestions that the CRA only applies to rules that have “effective dates” because the CRA states that a rule may not “take effect” until the rule and its proposed effective date have been reported to each House of Congress and the Comptroller General pursuant to the CRA.  According to Prof. Levitin, this “suggests that the term ‘rule’ in the CRA means what we normally think of as a ‘rule,’ and not some technical definition.”  This argument strikes us as grasping at straws.

While the Bulletin will become the first guidance document to be disapproved pursuant to the CRA, the notion that a guidance document can be a “rule” subject to congressional review is not novel.  The GAO previously determined that other guidance documents can be “rules” subject to congressional review.  For example, as we reported previously, the GAO determined that the Interagency Leverage Lending Guidance issued jointly by the federal bank regulatory agencies on March 22, 2013 “is a general statement of policy and is a rule under the CRA.”  In concluding that the Interagency Leveraged Lending Guidance was a rule subject to the CRA, the GAO relied upon prior GAO opinions (including one issued in 2001) holding that general statements of policy are “rules,” decisional law under the Administrative Procedure Act and floor statements made by the principal sponsor during final congressional consideration of the bill that became the CRA as well as analyses of legal commentators.  Among other things, the principal sponsor had stated that the types of documents covered by the CRA include “statements of general policy, interpretations of general applicability, and administrative staff manuals and instructions to staff that affect a member of the public.”  Agencies thus were on notice that the CRA definition of a “rule” can encompass guidance documents and that this was by design.

With respect to the allusion to a “technical definition” of a “rule,” it is the prerogative of Congress to define statutory terms in a manner that is consistent with the achievement of its legislative objectives.  The legislative intent was to ensure that elected representatives of the People be afforded an opportunity to disapprove “rules” issued by administrative agencies, including certain guidance documents such as the Bulletin that are an example of administrative overreach. In making its determination, the GAO applied the statutory definition in a straightforward, well-reasoned manner.  As for the statutory requirement to include the proposed effective date when reporting a rule to Congress, absent some statutory or regulatory limitation, a guidance document that does not provide for a deferred effective date presumably is effectively immediately.  If such a guidance document is a “rule” (other than a “major rule”) subject to the CRA, “immediately” presumably should mean the date on which it is reported to each House of Congress and the Comptroller General in compliance with the CRA.

Prof. Levitin further suggests that the Bulletin is not a “rule” because it was not “designed” by the Bureau to “interpret law” or “prescribe . . . policy” and it does not have “future effect” because it is non-binding guidance that has no effect.  More specifically, Prof. Levitin asserts that the Bulletin has no future effect because, inter alia, it does not affirmatively state that the Bureau will bring enforcement actions in these circumstances, and it does not specifically and affirmatively state a position of the Bureau.  According to Prof. Levin, while “[p]erhaps there’s an implicit enforcement threat, “it’s pretty oblique” and, in his view, the guidance is merely “a sort of ‘head’s up, there might be compliance issues here that you guys aren’t aware of, so here’s what you should be thinking.”  We respectfully submit, however, that it cannot seriously be contended that the Bulletin was not designed by the Bureau to interpret law or prescribe policy and to have future effect.  To the contrary, the Bulletin was labeled in the CFPB’s own press release as indicating an intent “to Hold Auto Lenders Accountable for Illegal Discriminatory Markup.”  That does not seem oblique to us; it is an explicit statement of future enforcement actions which, in fact, the Bureau was pursuing at the time the Bulletin was released and which became public later in 2013.

Administrative agencies periodically issue official guidance documents to communicate their position with respect to regulatory compliance issues.  While such documents may be literally non-binding, regulatory agencies do not issue official guidance documents in the hope that they will be disregarded by regulated entities.  The regulatory expectation is that entities subject to the regulatory, supervisory and enforcement authorities of the agency will take to heart the views reflected therein.  As regulated entities are well aware, the failure to take official guidance documents seriously can have significant adverse regulatory consequences.  This is true generally and it was certainly true with respect to the Bulletin.

We fail to understand how the Bulletin could fairly be read as anything other than a statement of policy.  As noted previously, the associated CFPB press release included a statement that the Bureau was going “to Hold Auto Lenders Accountable for Illegal Discriminatory Markup.”  Additionally, the concluding sentence in the Bulletin warned industry participants that “[t]he CFPB will continue to closely review the operations of. . . indirect auto lenders, utilizing all appropriate regulatory tools to assess whether supervisory, enforcement, or other actions may be necessary to ensure that the market for auto lending [sic] provides fair, equitable, and nondiscriminatory access to credit for consumers.”  (emphasis added).

This enforcement threat was, in fact, explicit and there was nothing oblique about it.  This threat publicly came to fruition nine months later with what the Bureau press release characterized as “the largest-ever settlement in an auto loan discrimination case” that was “the result of a CFPB examination that began in September 2012.”  The CFPB press release stated that the associated Consent Order “demonstrates the type of fair lending risk identified in” the Bulletin “explaining that [the Bureau] would hold indirect auto lenders accountable for unlawful discriminatory pricing.”  (emphasis added).  Notwithstanding the suggestion to the contrary by Prof. Levitin, we believe that the irrefutable evidence of the prescriptive nature and future effect of the Bulletin may be found in the Bulletin itself, the associated CFPB press release, various internal CFPB documents posted on the website of the House Financial Services Committee, four public Consent Orders, and in CFPB publications such as Supervisory Highlights and Fair Lending Reports of the Bureau.  From a big picture perspective, it is abundantly clear that the Bulletin was part of an orchestrated CFPB initiative to effectuate a sea change with respect to the discretionary pricing of retail automotive credit by either eliminating dealer discretion or requiring RISC assignees to impose more restrictive “mark up” limits, perform portfolio-level analyses for “mark up” disparities and promptly remunerate alleged affected consumers if disparities were identified at the portfolio level.  The Bulletin says as much when it discusses the approaches RISC assignees should take to manage the asserted ECOA compliance risk.

Implications of Congressional Disapproval

Much undoubtedly will be written about the implications of Congressional disapproval of the Bulletin, and some will suggest, as Prof. Levitin has in the title of his blog post, that it is a “pointless” exercise.  We respectfully disagree with this point of view, and believe a federal court would disagree as well if the issue were ever to be litigated.

In our “back and forth” with Prof. Levitin, he suggested that a Congressional override of the Bulletin would represent merely a disapproval of the Bureau’s statement of its position.  We responded that, in our view, it would also represent a disapproval of the position reflected in the Bulletin pursuant to a Public Law adopted by the elected representatives of the People stating that “such rule shall have no force and effect.”  It seems to us self-evident that the import of a Public Law disapproving the Bulletin would be a disapproval of the position reflected therein because the “position” is embodied in the “statement” of the position and cannot be disassociated with it.  They are, simply stated, indivisible.

So, what exactly is the substantive centerpiece of the Bulletin that Congress today disapproved?  It is the notion that a RISC assignee has a “policy” of “allowing” dealerships to negotiate the APRs under their RISCs by “marking up” the wholesale buy rate established by a prospective assignee and that disparate impact liability may be predicated upon this “policy” if there are “mark-up” disparities in the portfolio of RISCs acquired by the assignee. One cannot get past the “Background” section of the Bulletin without encountering a reference to supervisory experience of the Bureau confirming that such policies exist and the statement that such discretionary pricing “policies” create a significant risk that they will result in unlawful pricing disparities on a prohibited basis.  The Bulletin proceeds to state that an “indirect auto lender that permits dealer markup and compensates dealers on that basis may be liable for these policies and practices if they result in disparities on a prohibit basis.”  This rule of liability – based on the factual and legal theory set forth in the Bulletin – is the “rule” that Congress has just disapproved.

Viewed from this perspective, if a court is called upon to discern the import of the joint resolution of disapproval in the context of a litigation premised upon this type of disparate impact claim, we are confident that the court will conclude that it represents a repudiation, by Congress, of the substantive centerpiece of the Bulletin.

We hope, however, that no industry participant ever itself in a situation in which it becomes necessary to assert this argument in the context of a CFPB enforcement action.  As we suggested previously, if the Bulletin is invalid, and the CFPB cannot reissue a disapproved rule in “substantially the same form” or issue “a new rule that is substantially the same,” turning around and applying the substantive centerpiece of the disapproved rule in supervision and enforcement would disregard the clear import of an act of Congress.  And it would lead to the most absurd of results – that the CFPB would be forbidden from adopting the “rule” set forth in the Bulletin, but would be free to enforce that “rule” in enforcement actions against industry participants.  We think any federal court would find it impossible to swallow this contradiction.  But, as noted above, our hope is that an administrative agency that respects its role in a representative democracy should not behave in a manner that reflects a desire to nullify the clear import of a Congressional resolution disapproving the disparate impact centerpiece of the Bulletin.

Finally, in his Credit Slips Blog post, Prof. Levitin asserted that our reference to “grandiose and vague ‘will of the People’ language . . . is a glaring sign that there’s not a good substantive argument” and that we were “falling back” on a legislative intent argument.  In this regard, he asserts that we incorrectly assume that a CRA resolution is an affirmative statement of policy and seeks to draw a distinction between an affirmative law requiring 60 votes in the Senate and negative law adopted pursuant to the CRA.

Simply stated, we think it illogical to suggest that a statement of policy can be disapproved without thereby disapproving the substance of the policy that is the subject of the statement.  The purported distinction, based upon Senate filibuster rules, between an affirmative law and a negative law strikes us as curious indeed.  At the end of the day, a Public Law is, in fact, a law and the only relevant question is, “what is its import?”  In written testimony submitted to the House Financial Services Committee on July 12, 2015, Prof. Levitin himself observed that a trio of provisions of a proposed Financial CHOICE Act, including one that “would nullify the CFPB’s indirect auto lending guidance and impose an onerous process for any future guidance,” would “shield discriminatory lenders from legal repercussions.”

Additionally, our perspective strikes us entirely consistent with the policy underlying the CRA, which was to give Congress a veto power over administrative rulemaking that can be, and often is, substantive in nature.  It seems to us that the perspective articulated by Prof. Levtin leads to a result that leaves an administrative agency whose rule has been disapproved to continue to cling to (and apply) the substance of its disapproved rule in supervision and enforcement.  We respectfully submit that the view articulated by Prof. Levitin would have the effect of defeating the central purpose of the CRA.

In sum, although we have enjoyed the engaging “back and forth” with our friend Adam Levitin, it appears that we will have to agree to respectfully disagree.  What remains to be seen is whether the academic discussion in which we have been partaking ever becomes something with more practical impact.  That will, of course, depend on the CFPB’s future action.