Schakowsky Chairs Hearing On Price-Gouging, Consumer Protections

EVANSTON, IL — Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky blamed the Trump administration and "Big Tech" for allowing fakery and fraud to run rampant on the internet during the coronavirus pandemic, while online price-gouging continues thanks to a weak federal response.

Schakowsky, chair of the House Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee, convened a remote congressional hearing Thursday from her Evanston home titled, "Consumers Beware: Increased Risks During the COVID-19 Pandemic."

"Despite the Trump administration counting on the private sector to play a key role in the response and recovery, Big Tech has allowed fraud, fake news, fake reviews, and counterfeit and stolen products to thrive on their platforms," said Schakowsky. "Price-gouging has continued mostly unfettered on platforms because of a weak and uneven federal response."

Schakowsky was the lead sponsor of the COVID-19 Price Gouging Prevention Act, a bill she introduced in April that would make it illegal to offer products or services at prices that are "unconscionably excessive," and suggested sellers are using the circumstances related to the pandemic to raise prices "unreasonably."

That measure was included in the Heroes Act, a $3 trillion spending package that passed the Democratic-led House in mid-March with virtually no chance of becoming law. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has described the 1,800-page bill as a "big laundry list of pet priorities."

For instance, the bill included an amendment to remove the $10,000 cap on tax deductions for state and local taxes, or SALT, which would disproportionately benefit relatively wealthy people who live in states with higher tax rates, like Illinois. An earlier effort by Democrats to repeal the cap on SALT deductions was first approved by the House in December, months before the pandemic began.

Schakowsky said she is introducing an updated version of a bill introduced in March by Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana called the Integrity, Notification, and Fairness in Online Retail Marketplaces for Consumers Act, or the INFORM Consumers Act, which would require online marketplaces to verify the identities of high-volume sellers and disclose their name and email addresses to buyers.

"This common-sense legislation would ensure that consumers have information that they need when an online seller fails to deliver the goods or services that they were promised," Schakowsky said.

Amazon has announced it will voluntarily start making such information available to customers in September, she added.

In Illinois, complaints about price-gouging can be reported via an online form to the state attorney general's Office, which has said it is prioritizing complaints about the price tags of essential items like protective gear. Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed an executive order in March giving the office of Attorney General Kwame Raoul more authority to root out gouging triggered by the pandemic.

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Schakowsky, a chief deputy whip among House Democrats, also warned that President Donald Trump's nominee to head up the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Nancy Beck, must be withdrawn and replaced with someone more sympathetic to the public.

"Her resume tells the story of a career defined by disdain for consumers, whom she has exposed to toxic chemicals and left vulnerable to COVID-19," Schakowsky said in an opening statement submitted into the record. "However, her nomination hearing featured a different narrative — that she was just middle management and was merely executing directives from the real decision-makers. Either way, she is wholly unfit to hold this prestigious title."

After spending about 15 years in public sector roles, Beck departed a position at the director of regulatory science policy for the chemical producer trade association, the American Chemistry Council, to take a job as a chief deputy in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention after Trump took office. In March, the White House announced Trump planned to nominate her to lead the CPSC, a federal consumer watchdog agency.

Last month, more than 90 scientists co-signed a letter from Jennifer Sass, senior scientist at the National Resources Defense Council, opposing Beck's confirmation as CPSC chair. Citing her record on protecting children from lead, pesticide and contaminated drinking water, the letter warned Beck would be in a position to rollback protections from toxic chemicals in toys, cleaning supplies and home furnishings, among other things.

Witnesses who testified during Thursday's hearing included Kevin Anderson, senior deputy attorney general and director of the consumer protection division in the North Carolina Department of Justice, Sally Greenberg, the executive director of the National Consumers League, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President Thomas Quaadman.

Watch the full hearing below, or find written testimony from the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee website »

This article originally appeared on the Evanston Patch