If they were slices of bread, mold would sprout along their edges. If they were milk, they'd curdle in hot coffee. But bills shoved to the back of the legislative deep-freeze on Capitol Hill don't get freezer burn or go stale. They get ignored. Most of them eventually disappear.
That may be the fate of several key consumer protection bills introduced in Congress in 1999. One reason the bills are going nowhere slowly is that while consumers number in the millions, they're not nearly as well financed or organized as those opposing these bills -- the huge corporations that are inventive at putting their customers at a disadvantage and focusing legislators on industry issues instead.
"But consumers are upset and are starting to unite," says Denise Richardson, a consumer who turned consumer advocate from her ongoing battle to correct inaccurate and derogatory information in her credit report after a credit card company botched her account. "The sense of powerlessness and frustration in my own case left me feeling like I had to do something."
Among the bills wilting in congressional committees, for instance, is H.R. 2351. That bill (introduced in June) would prohibit credit card companies and others from sending solicitations with negotiable checks that extend credit when cashed, and limit liability of consumers who cash them. H.R. 445 (February) would safeguard consumers in using debit cards. H.R. 612 (February) would take steps to protect the public, especially seniors, from telemarketing fraud and Internet fraud. Introduced in the Senate in January, S. 58 would improve consumer protections against telephone service slamming and telephone bill cramming. H.R. 900, stagnating since its introduction in March, would tackle a long list of credit card problems, from requiring disclosure of late-payment deadlines to prohibiting over-the-limit fees on charges approved by the creditor.
And the Consumer Fairness Act of 1999 (H.R. 2258) has been missing in action since July when the House tossed this hot potato to the Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit. But some consumer advocates want to rally around this proposal to prohibit "waive your right to sue" clauses that increasingly are inserted, stealth-like, into everyday marketplace transactions, from purchase agreements to service contracts.
By outlawing written provisions in consumer transactions that mandate binding arbitration and strip consumers of the right to take grievances or disputes to court, the bill "would resolve a situation that is growing and affects a lot of people who aren't even aware they are subject to it," says Billy Wienberg, press secretary for U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) who introduced the bill.
Just by paying credit card bills or signing purchase agreements when buying, say, a computer, consumers unwittingly may be waiving their right to sue, says Wienberg.
"Forced arbitration" is what gets Denise Richardson's dander up. "What will stop all companies from using this convenient method to waive our rights?" she says, encouraging consumers to contact their congressmen in support of this and other consumer bills. "What if the products we purchase, such as food, medicine, and toys, start including a small-print clause on the package saying `You are signing away your right to sue us simply by purchasing this item'? As Americans we have a constitutional right to a jury of our peers while seeking justice and they have no right to steal that from us."
Got a consumer complaint? Question? Smart consumer tip? E-mail details to firstname.lastname@example.org or write Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, 20071.