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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

CFPB asks Supreme Court to review 5th Circuit decision

Courts Appellate Fifth Circuit CFPB U.S. Supreme Court Constitution Enforcement Payday Lending Payday Rule Funding Structure


On November 14, the DOJ, on behalf of the CFPB, submitted a petition for a writ of certiorari asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit erred in holding that the Bureau’s funding structure violates the Appropriations Clause of the Constitution. The Bureau also asked the court to consider the 5th Circuit’s decision to vacate the agency’s 2017 final rule covering “Payday, Vehicle Title, and Certain High-Cost Installment Loans” (Payday Lending Rule) on the premise that it was promulgated at a time when the Bureau was receiving unconstitutional funding.

The Bureau’s funding is derived through the Federal Reserve instead of the annual congressional appropriations process—a process, the appellate court said, that violates the Constitution. Specifically, the 5th Circuit’s October 19 holding (covered by a Buckley Special Alert) found that although the Bureau spends money pursuant to a validly enacted statute, the structure violates the Appropriations Clause because (i) the Bureau obtains its funds from the Federal Reserve (not the Treasury); (ii) the agency maintains funds in a separate account; (iii) the Appropriations Committees do not have authority to review the agency’s expenditures; and (iv) the Bureau exercises broad authority over the economy. The 5th Circuit also rejected the Bureau’s arguments that the funding structure was necessarily constitutional because it was created by and subject to Congress, and distinguished other agencies that are funded outside of the annual appropriations process.

The case involves a challenge to the Bureau’s Payday Lending Rule, which prohibits lenders from attempting to withdraw payments for covered loans from consumers’ accounts after two consecutive withdrawal attempts have failed due to insufficient funds. As a result of the 5th Circuit’s decision, lenders’ obligation to comply with the rule (originally set for August 19, 2019, but repeatedly delayed) will be further delayed while the constitutional issue winds its way through the courts.

“No other court has ever held that Congress violated the Appropriations Clause by passing a statute authorizing spending,” the Bureau argued as it requested a prompt Supreme Court review, asserting that the 5th Circuit’s decision “threatens to inflict immense legal and practical harms on the CFPB, consumers, and the Nation’s financial sector.” The agency also stressed that “[n]ew challenges to the Bureau’s rules and other actions can be expected to multiply in the weeks and months to come, and will presumably be filed in the 5th Circuit whenever possible.” The decision also has the potential to impact past enforcement actions and rulemaking as well, the Bureau said.

The Bureau further asserted that while the 5th Circuit concluded that “‘an appropriation is required’ to authorize spending” and that “‘[a] law’ providing an agency with a funding source and spending authority ‘does not suffice,’” the appellate court failed to specify what would be required for such a law to qualify as an appropriation. 

Moreover, the 5th Circuit’s reasoning was incorrect, the Bureau argued, because Congress specified that the agency could claim up to 12 percent of the Fed’s budget to fund its operations, and it is subject to, among other things, budget and financial oversight, government audits, and requirements that its director prepare and submit annual reports to the Senate and House appropriations committees concerning its fiscal operating plans and forecasts. These safeguards, the Bureau stressed, should assuage concerns about whether the agency is insulated from congressional oversight. “The court of appeals’ novel and ill-defined limits on Congress’s spending authority contradict the Constitution’s text, historical practice, and this Court’s precedent,” the Bureau said, adding that the decision also conflicts with a holding issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit where the appellate court recognized that “Congress can, consistent with the Appropriations Clause, create governmental institutions reliant on fees, assessments, or investments rather than the ordinary appropriations process.”

The Bureau asked the Supreme Court to review the case during its current term, which would ensure resolution of the issue by the summer of 2023.