Robert Samuelson's contention that bankruptcy legislation "would only tighten the law" for a few higher-income debtors runs contrary to the actions of the consumer credit industry, which has spent tens of millions to persuade Congress to pass this harmful bill ["Bankruptcy for Profit," op-ed, Aug. 25]. Why would banks, credit card issuers and other creditors launch a high-profile lobbying and public relations campaign in support of legislation that merely tweaks existing law?
In fact, the consumer credit industry is getting what it paid for. The bill is a radical overhaul of the bankruptcy system that would deny access to the "fresh start" needed by many families in their times of financial crisis. Even conservative lawmakers such as Rep. Henry Hyde have expressed concern about the punitive effect the bill would have on honest, hard-working Americans in debt trouble.
Several provisions of the bill would be especially harmful to lower- and middle-income debtors, allowing, for instance, creditors to challenge the nullification of certain debts in bankruptcy court and giving landlords the right to evict families who are trying to catch up on rent. The effect of these terms would be to allow credit card companies to bully cash-strapped debtors into "settling" their claims to the detriment of their families' welfare. The bankruptcy bill also would compromise the payment of child support by allowing credit card debt to compete with child support for available dollars.
Mr. Samuelson almost ignores the effects of irresponsible lending practices by credit card companies. In a report issued in April, the Consumer Federation of America documented that credit card consumers have exercised more restraint in incurring debt in the past year, while card issuers have expanded their marketing, lines of credit and profitability. In 1998 the credit card industry extended credit worth more than $2.5 trillion, almost four times more than in 1992. It is hypocritical for card issuers to support bankruptcy restrictions while they continue to extend credit recklessly.
The reality is that debt alone doesn't push most people into bankruptcy. For most Americans, it is a family emergency -- the loss of a job, divorce or a medical catastrophe -- that results in bankruptcy. None of these factors is the result of, as Mr. Samuelson puts it, "convenience or calculation."
I am offended by Mr. Samuelson's gross mischaracterization of the present bankruptcy system as an "informal welfare network." He is using an emotionally charged term to cloud the debate about this bill because the facts don't support his position. The present bankruptcy laws are an important social safety net for families in crisis. The legislation that Mr. Samuelson supports would tear this safety net apart, rather than offering targeted solutions to minor abuses of the present system.
HOWARD H. METZENBAUM
Consumer Federation of America