Sometimes you have to connect the dots, and sometimes the connections just hit you over the head. Congress is on the verge of taking a final vote on the bankruptcy bill, the product of a five-year effort by credit-card companies to stack the law in their favor and against average citizens. But you will be relieved to learn that our lawmakers have thoughtfully included a loophole that leaves six states, including Florida and Texas, free to continue providing extraordinary advantages to rich citizens from all over the country who need to shelter their gelt from bankruptcy proceedings. The millionaire protection amendment.
And this is about to happen despite the fact that one of the bill’s most important sponsors, a Congressman with financial problems, got a $447,500 loan–as The New York Times genteelly put it, “on what appeared to be highly favorable terms,”–from (Guess who? Right again.) a major credit card company.
Rep. James P. Moran, Democrat of Virginia, got the loan from the MBNA Corp. of Delaware, the world’s largest independent credit card agency, in 1998, just one month before he signed on as the lead Democratic sponsor of the bill, giving it the appearance of a bipartisan effort. Quel coincidence, eh?
And that’s just what Rep. Moran said. “The timing of my loan was wholly coincidental with the co-sponsorship of bankruptcy reform.”
I find that entirely believable, since I live in Texas where such coincidences lie thick on the ground. Not so long ago our Governor Rick Perry appointed a former Enron executive to the state Public Utilities Commission, to better regulate our energy market. The very next day, Perry got a $25,000 check from Kenny Boy Lay, but Perry explained, it was “totally coincidental.”
You would think Moran would have a little more sympathy for Americans caught in the toils of the bankruptcy laws–his own financial problems stem from running up debts on his credit cards, stock market losses, and paying for cancer treatment for his daughter. Ninety percent of all bankruptcies are caused by getting sick, getting laid off, or divorce. But then, most Americans don’t get half-million dollar loans that qualify as the largest mortgage package given by MBNA to any single debtor that year.
Naturally, most congresspeople get their money from credit card companies in the form of campaign contributions, rather than loans. And that makes it so much better, you see. MBNA was President Bush’s largest corporate contributor in 2000 and, since 1990, banks alone have made contributions of more than $106 million to Congress, the parties, and presidential candidates. The Center for Responsive Politics website (opensecrets.org) has the gory details on who got how much with links to current contributions.
Bankruptcies have been rising in recent years, but there is no evidence of abuse of the system by average Americans or that it is hurting the card companies. Credit-card debt and credit-card companies’ profits are rising, too.
This card-company bill institutes a harsh “means test” and makes it much harder to get the “fresh start” status from bankruptcy. Average citizens will be pushed into five-year repayment plans, leaving less for child support. The bill will particularly affect women.
But whose fault is it that bankruptcies are rising? The Public Interest Research Group points out that the four leading banking regulatory agencies–the Federal Reserve Board, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Office of Thrift Supervision, and the FDIC–just issued a report in June documenting predatory lending practices. The credit card companies are making loans to consumers already in debt trouble, not to mention offering cards to teenagers. Some credit-card companies charge monthly minimum payments so low consumers wind up owing more than they did before, instead of ever paying off their credit-card debts.
Citibank has just agreed to pay the Federal Trade Commission $200 million to settle predatory lending charges. So why reward the very companies that are causing the problem? Is this what Congress intended with its “Corporate Responsibility Act”?
The bill does contain a provision to keep Kenny Boy and Company from taking advantage of the millionaire’s loophole: You can’t use it if you’ve been convicted of securities fraud. Great, but as you may have read, it is extremely difficult to get convictions for securities fraud.
Here in Texas, at the end of the tech bubble, the S&L frauds, and after the stock market dive, people are suddenly scrambling for high-end houses. They trade up from the $1 million house to the $5 million or $10 million dwelling. The state’s “homestead” exemption protects the family home from the claims of debtors. It’s a good thing for most people, but has become another form of fraud by the big rich.
This bill stinks. Write, phone, fax, or e-mail your representatives, and remind them that they work for you, not the credit-card industry.
Molly Ivins is a nationally syndicated columnist. Her book with Louis Dubose, Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, is out in paperback.