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Vogel: Hang Ups

On November 3rd Congress passed and President Obama signed the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015. Most of us breathed a sigh of relief.  As Senator Orin Hatch the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee explained: “Though imperfect, supporting this budget agreement is the only realistic way to avert another government shutdown and avoid risking a default on our debt obligations.”

Then we read the fine print. Believe it or not this Bipartisan Budget Act contains a provision allowing student loan servicers to make robo calls.

You might well ask who’d be in favor of changing the law so that companies can make robo calls to cell phones. You might wonder who would risk shutting down the government in order to enact this robo call provision. Apparently Congress.

Our dysfunctional Congress, which does not seem to be able to agree on the time of day, managed to come together in a bipartisan fashion to overturn the rules that prohibit companies from making robo calls. In the bill, Congress renamed these calls, predictive dialer technology.

For most of us, robo calls or predictive dialer technology are an annoyance. Our dinner is interrupted by an intrusive, unwanted, phone call. What is particularly exasperating is the fact that if the company behind these calls makes a mistake, it’s very hard to get them to stop threatening you. And for many people, particularly lower income people, robo calls from debt collectors can be a major cause of stress. With the passage of this bill we can expect more robo calls - and now they will be legal.

The motivation behind all this seems to be that the government wants to do a better job in collecting the trillion dollars of outstanding student loans. However, it still seems wrong to me for the government to use such objectionable tactics to achieve this goal.

Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem. Congressman Edward Markey from Massachusetts has introduced a bill called the Hang Up Act to repeal this provision. But I suspect that long before that legislation gets debated, someone will create an app that automatically re-routes robo calls from a person’s smartphone to his or her Senator or Congressman.

John Vogel is a retired professor from the Tuck School of Business. His tenure at Dartmouth began in 1992, where he taught Real Estate and Entrepreneurship in the Social Sector, among other subjects. He was named by the “Business Week Guide” to Business Schools as one of Tuck’s “Outstanding Faculty” members.
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