IN RUSS FEINGOLD'S OP-ED PIECE ON BANKRUPTCY REFORM (JUNE 7), THE SOURCE OF A $200,000 SOFT-MONEY CONTRIBUTION AND ITS RECIPIENT WERE MISIDENTIFIED. THE CONTRIBUTION WAS MADE BY MBNA CORP., (NOT MASTER CARD, AS STATED IN THE ARTICLE) TO THE NATIONAL REPUBLICAN SENATORIAL COMMITTEE. (PUBLISHED 06/09/99)
Legislation poised to be rushed through the Senate offers literal proof of Washington's worst-kept secret: that the special interests are bankrupting our system of government.
The bankruptcy laws that are the subject of fierce lobbying in Congress today were once considered too complicated to be the focus of such a high-powered campaign. But credit card companies have spent tens of millions of dollars to push a bill that legal experts and judges say won't work. The experts are right, but it's hard to hear them above the din of lobbyists who insist that if Congress wants more "personal responsibility" and fewer bankruptcy filings, it must pass this bankruptcy bill in a hurry.
Credit card companies have placed a rush order for bankruptcy reform: The House recently hurried a bankruptcy bill through, and now the Senate is being pressed toward hasty passage of one. It's up to the Senate to put the brakes on this ill-considered and dangerous push for so-called reform.
Why such a rush? It's simple: Powerful economic interests see an opportunity to push through major structural changes to the bankruptcy system before the public becomes aware of the consequences of what they are doing and works to stop them. And one reason these interests can get Congress to act so quickly is that they have spent millions on lobbying and campaign contributions.
Like so many bills in Congress these days, bankruptcy reform has become special-interest legislation. Campaign money is a central component of the lobbying effort. In the last election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the members of the National Consumer Bankruptcy Coalition, an industry lobbying group made up of credit card companies such as Visa and MasterCard and associations representing the nation's big banks and retailers, gave more than $4.5 million in contributions to parties and candidates. Significant sums came from the same groups in the form of soft-money contributions to both political parties.
Some of the industry's contributions seem timed for maximum effect. For example, on the very day that the House passed the bill last year and sent it to the Senate, where it fortunately died at the end of the Congress, MasterCard gave a $200,000 soft-money contribution to the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. Contributions from coalition members totaled $227,000 in March, the same month that the Judiciary committees of both the House and the Senate were considering the bill.
The credit card industry is pushing this bill at the same time that people across the country are becoming more critical of the industry's efforts to encourage consumers to take new credit cards. Many of us receive credit card offers almost daily. As one of my constituents wrote to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last year, "Isn't it ironic that the credit card issuers, after years of indiscriminate mass mailing of credit cards to unemployed college students and other non-credit-worthy persons, are now spending millions of dollars in political contributions and lobbying efforts to change the bankruptcy laws to prevent those same card holders from filing for bankruptcy."
I agree that it is ironic, and it is disturbing. Congress should resist efforts to hijack the legislative process for the self-interested purposes of a single industry.
In coming weeks, the burden will fall on me and my Senate colleagues to make sure this bill is a balanced and effective response to the bankruptcy problem. Bankruptcy judges, bankruptcy trustees, nonpartisan academic experts and consumer advocates all strongly oppose the bill, and even some creditors' organizations are lining up against it. The debate on this bill may well be about restoring "personal responsibility" to the bankruptcy system. I just hope that as we finish work on the bill, the Senate will fulfill its own responsibility -- to serve the public interest -- rather than its campaign contributors.
The writer is a Democratic senator from Wisconsin.