Who'll pay bigger fees for your debit card use?

The Associated Press
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 7:10 PM

WASHINGTON -- Bankers and merchants, pillars of the business world and frequent allies, are embroiled in a bitter lobbying battle over something Americans do 38 billion times a year - swipe their debit cards. Both sides vigorously claim to speak for consumers.

At stake is $16 billion annually that the Federal Reserve says stores pay to banks and credit card companies when customers use the cards - fees the Fed has proposed cutting.

Cut the fees, banks say, and they'll have to abandon free checking and boost other charges to consumers to recover lost revenue. Merchants say lower fees would help them drop their prices and expand their businesses.

Currently, the fees typically range between 1 and 2 percent of each purchase, averaging 44 cents. The Fed has proposed capping that at 12 cents, though smaller banks could charge more. Bankers want lawmakers to delay the change in hopes that it will eventually be killed or toned down.

Patrick Lewis and Charles Garlock are foot soldiers in this fight's opposing infantries.

Each side is dispatching planeloads of hometown business people like them, along with armies of lobbyists and mountains of letters and e-mails to Washington. Some 4,000 local credit union officers swamped the Capitol last week, and around 300 merchants are buttonholing lawmakers this week. Unless Congress delays the deadline, the Federal Reserve must issue a final rule by April 21, to take effect three months later.

Lewis, a partner in 13 Oasis Stop 'N Go convenience stores in southern Idaho, was visiting Idaho lawmakers on Thursday urging them to back the Fed proposal. He said the $275,000 he pays yearly in debit card fees trails only payroll and his properties' mortgages and rents.

"I don't think her boss is necessarily on our side," he said spending a half hour with an aide to Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho. "But maybe if we provide enough information it will change."

Garlock, president of the Rock Valley Federal Credit Union in Loves Park, Ill., said he would lose $150,000 to $175,000 annually if the Fed's proposed cut in fees is adopted, about one third of his credit union's net annual income.

"The little guys will be hit the worst. I can't sustain it," he said during his lobbying visit last week.

Though bankers are outspending their rivals on lobbying and campaign contributions and seem to have gained momentum, merchants so far have the upper hand. The bankers are trying to get Congress to undo legislation it passed just last year, a tall order on any subject.

Banks and merchants are often allied on such issues as taxes and regulation, but the debit card battle has driven them apart, each accusing the other of trying to pocket unjustified profits in what has become an emotional fight.

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