The Virginia Senate, under pressure from the state's powerful banking lobby, apparently scuttled a surprise attempt by the House to guarantee consumers a grace period to pay credit card bills before they incur finance charges.
The Senate voted 25 to 10 to strip the consumer-oriented amendment from legislation regulating credit card payments. The Senate action came after influential banking lobbyists, who were caught off guard by a House legislative maneuver last week, pushed to kill the amendment.
The bill now goes back to the House, where it will be assigned to a House-Senate conference committee, but the credit card amendment was given little chance of being revived.
Defending the amendment in the Senate today, Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said: "Over the years we've essentially gone along with whatever they [the banking lobby] want. If we approve this, everybody in here can go home and tell their constituents, 'I finally did something for the little guy.' "
But in a legislative chamber where half the members have strong financial ties to the banking industry, the banking lobby won again.
Walter C. Ayers, one of the most prominent lobbyists for the Virginia Bankers Association, wrote some senators a letter today warning that the bill could cost the banking industry in Virginia $30 million annually.
The House amendment, which Alexandria Del. Bernard S. Cohen (D) slipped last week onto a bill requiring banks to credit customer payments within two days of receiving the payments, would have abolished a little-known provision of state law that says consumers forfeit a 25-day, interest-free grace period if they carry any outstanding balance from one billing period to the next. Cohen said at the time he expected the Senate to approve the amended bill.
Saslaw, pleading with his colleagues to retain the amendment, said, "99 percent of the credit card holders aren't even aware" of the present law's provisions.
"It's all good and well to get up here and advocate a consumer interest," shot back Sen. William E. Fears (D-Accomack), who is a director of a branch of the Bank of Virginia. "But it [the amendment] doesn't apply to out-of-state banks or retail cards."
"Banks in this state have a lot of influence," said Sen. Virgil H. Goode Jr. (D-Franklin), shortly before he voted with the minority to retain the amendment. "They have a lot of influence in campaigns."
Among all the special business and professional influences in the legislature, including lawyers, none is as pervasive as the banking and financial interests, a study of legislator's financial disclosure records by The Washington Post showed. On the Senate committee that controls most of the banking legislation, two-thirds of the members sit on bank boards, hold substantial amounts of bank stock or represent financial institutions as lawyers.
Fears, chairman of that committee, jokingly threatened to nominate three banker-legislators to represent the Senate on the joint conference committee that will decide the outcome of the controversial measure.