By Claude R. Marx and Kirk Victor. Originally published on FTC:Watch on May 19, 2017.
Democrats' surprising choice of Rohit Chopra for a seat on the Federal Trade Commission underscores the clout of one of its populist heroes, while provoking cheers from consumer advocates and puzzlement from antitrust lawyers.
Chopra built his reputation by aggressively overseeing the student lending business at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency that was the brainchild of Senator Elizabeth Warren, one of Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer's key advisers.
That Schumer would advance Chopra's name "tells us that Elizabeth Warren has become a force in the Democratic caucus," a former FTC official and veteran antitrust lawyer said. The pick is surprising, the lawyer added, but reflects "how influential Elizabeth Warren is."
Chopra isn't a lawyer, which is unusual for FTC members, and he has no experience on antitrust issues. Within the insular antitrust bar, Chopra's name isn't a familiar one.
But among consumer advocates, Chopra is well-known for his work at the CFPB and is seen as a quick study who will do well at the FTC. "He's wonderful, smart, thoughtful and did a great job," Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates, said in an interview.
While at the CFPB from 2010-2015, Chopra was a leader in the agency's lawsuit against for-profit Corinthian Colleges that alleged deceptive practices. Corinthian was ordered to repay $531 million —including reimbursement of student loans made by private lenders — to former students.
"He took the job [overseeing the student lending program] and, through the use of the bully pulpit, he brought the issues that students face in the loan market to the forefront of people's concerns," Rheingold noted.
Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director of US PIRG predicted in an e-mail that if he is confirmed to a seat on the FTC, "Chopra will keep doing the good — and fact-based — judicious work he's demonstrated he knows how to do, only this time on behalf of all consumers."
Chopra's work at the CFPB clearly wasn't lost on Warren, who had pushed for creation of the agency while she was a professor at Harvard Law School. Ironically, after GOP opposition stopped President Barack Obama from naming her bureau director, she ran for an open Senate seat in Massachusetts.
Since joining the Senate, Warren has been an outspoken critic of large financial institutions. And while not on the Judiciary Committee, she has called for beefed-up enforcement of antitrust laws. She even clashed with Bill Baer, former head of the Justice Department's antitrust division, over whether the Obama administration was sufficiently aggressive in stopping mergers (see FTC:WATCH, No. 899, July 15, 2016).
Warren declined comment on any role she may have played in pushing Chopra for the FTC. While other Democratic lawmakers joined her in pushing for Chopra, the Massachusetts senator's backing clearly carried a lot of weight with Schumer.
Schumer's office declined comment beyond what the New York Democrat said in his initial statement: "The Federal Trade Commission should be led by people who put the interests of consumers above all else, and that's what Rohit Chopra has done his entire life. Whether it was fighting on behalf of students and borrowers with student loan issues at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or working to protect the finances of our nation's veterans, Rohit has been a thoughtful and effective advocate for consumers."
Still, a thread of uncertainty could be heard from within the antitrust bar about what to expect from Chopra. His resume includes a bachelor's degree from Harvard University, an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania, and a stint with the consulting firm McKinsey and Co. before joining the CFPB.
The last FTC commissioner who didn't have a law degree was Orson Swindle, a Republican named by President Bill Clinton who served from 1997 to 2005.
"Chopra looks like a young, energetic, and experienced person in the area of consumer protection and the financial and banking industries," Diana Moss, president of the American Antitrust Institute, wrote in an e-mail to FTC:WATCH. "Of course, while the FTC is the leading enforcer on consumer protection issues (including many that pertain to financial services), we would be keen to know what his experience is, and policy positions are, on key antitrust issues that are handled by the FTC."
"There are escalating concerns about declining competition in the U.S., so we are attentive to the importance of FTC recommendees' experience in this area," Moss added.
Chopra, a senior fellow at the Consumer Federation of America, may face a tough road to get to the FTC.
One of the FTC's three vacancies must be filled by a non-Republican, according to the provisions of the FTC Act, which established the agency. While past presidents have deferred to the Senate leader of the other party when picking nominees for some agency positions, they are not obligated to do so.
Chopra's connection to the CFPB could be a problem with the Trump administration, as the agency has become the bête noire for Republican lawmakers. They have targeted the agency as an out-of-control bureaucracy that, they argue, has reduced access to credit since it was created by the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010. Senate Republicans would lead the confirmation process.
The Trump administration didn't respond to e-mails seeking comment on Schumer's recommendation. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune declined comment. The South Dakota Republican's committee is the venue for FTC nominees.
Those who know Chopra see his background and personality as an asset. "Whereas others in Washington sometimes miss the forest for the trees, Rohit understands how you can change things incrementally while keeping sight of the big picture," Rheingold said.
The FTC currently has just two commissioners, acting Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen, a Republican who is in the mix to get the job permanently, and Terrell McSweeny, a Democrat.
The three vacancies were created by the departures of former FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez and former FTC Commissioners Julie Brill and Joshua Wright. Ramirez and Brill held Democratic seats and Wright held a Republican slot.