By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010; A02
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has long pushed an amendment to limit those pesky and expensive transaction fees at automated teller machines, but his fellow senators didn't go along with the idea this week.
One possible explanation: Quite a few of Harkin's aging colleagues appear to have little or no contact with the decades-old technology of cash machines.
Sen. Ben Nelson (D), for example, told the Omaha World-Herald this week that he has never once used an ATM, relying on bank tellers instead. His Nebraska colleague, Sen. Mike Johanns (R), has used his ATM card fewer than five times. And Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, told the newspaper that he has a bank card but doesn't use it for cash.
"I've never used an ATM, so I don't know what the fees are. It's true, I don't know how to use one," Nelson, 69, said.
But Nelson added: "I could learn how to do it. . . . I swipe to get my own gas, buy groceries. I know about the holograms." Nelson's office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
The comments call to mind previous intersections of modern technology and Washington's sometimes cloistered politicians, from George H.W. Bush's alleged unfamiliarity with checkout scanners to former Alaska senator Ted Stevens's famous assertion that the Internet was akin to "a series of tubes." In the book "Clinton in Exile," author Carol Felsenthal reported that former president Bill Clinton ran into trouble trying pick up a restaurant tab after leaving office -- he didn't know the PIN for his ATM card and couldn't reach his wife for help.
The remarks also appear to provide further evidence of a generation gap in the halls of an aging Congress. The average age of members is among the highest of any Congress in the past century, according to a February report from the Congressional Research Service. The CRS found that the average age of senators at the start of the session was 63.1 years, which is three years higher than it was four years ago; the average for the House was 57.2 years, which is up by two years. The Senate's longest-serving member, Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), is 92.
Thomas E. Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, said it's "hard not to chuckle" at politicians who appear behind the times or unfamiliar with everyday technology. But Mann said it shouldn't be surprising given that members of Congress are older than the general population and accustomed to receiving help from staff members.
"I would imagine age is probably a better predicter than anything else," Mann said. "I bet if you looked at all of them that are 50 or under, you wouldn't find anyone in that position."
The first ATMs appeared in the United States in 1969, and experts estimate that there are more than 1.7 million machines worldwide. (As it happens, the Scotsman credited with inventing the concept, John Shepherd-Barron, died last weekend at 84.)
An analysis last year by the research firm Synergistics found that only 7 percent of consumers surveyed do not use an ATM, with people older than 50 the most likely holdouts. About 60 percent of consumers said they visit their bank's ATM up to five time a month, and 12 percent reported going 10 times.
"There's definitely different levels of usage," said Nicole Sturgill, a research director at the Tower Group, a financial services research firm. But, she said, "I don't know the last time I met someone who never used an ATM."
The financial overhaul debate in the Senate was peppered with proposed amendments targeting policies unpopular with consumers, such as credit card interest rates and bank fees. Although Sturgill said banks often break even on ATM fees -- free customer withdrawals are typically paid for with charges to noncustomers -- an industry of independent ATM operators has emerged that profits from the charges. They operate about half the ATMs in the country.
Under Harkin's proposal, the ATM fees charged would be required to bear a relationship to the amount of the transactions. Proponents argue that banks are ripping off users by charging as much as $5 for transactions that cost an average of 36 cents to service. The amendment failed Thursday, however, when the Senate cleared the way for passage of the legislation.
His office says Harkin, 70, objects to the fees based on personal experience. "I can confirm that Senator Harkin has used an ATM card," spokeswoman Bergen Kenny said. "He uses it regularly."
Staff writer Ylan Q. Mui contributed to this report.