THE BANKRUPTCY ACT is one of those laws that silently regulate our lives, helping to determine who can get credit and on what terms, and how much goods and services that are purchased on credit will cost. So it makes sense to pay attention when Congress considers, as it is considering now, making important changes in the Bankruptcy Act-- especially since Congress may act more rapidly than is usual in these matters. The reason is that Congress has suddenly been presented with a Supreme Court decision that found a constitutional defect in the law establishing bankruptcy judges and gave Congress an Oct. 4 deadline for curing that defect. Congress, led on bankruptcy issues by reasonable legislators in both houses, will no doubt meet that deadline. The question is whether it will decide to do anything else, and if so what.
The most important proposed change is one that would make it more difficult for individuals to use the provision of the Bankruptcy Act, Chapter VII, that allows them to expunge their debts. Backers of this change include consumer finance companies, department stores and banks, all of which suffer short-term losses when a larger-than-anticipated number of their debtors escape their debts through bankruptcy. They suggest that changes made in the 1978 Bankruptcy Act plus extraneous factors--notably the Supreme Court's legalization of advertising by lawyers and a lessening of the stigma attached to going bankrupt-- have increased the number of bankruptcies. And they say that, though creditors may suffer short-term losses, in the long run it is other consumers who will have to pay more to compensate for those who will not pay their debts. Many people go bankrupt though they have steady paychecks; bankruptcy costs them most of their current assets but none of their future earnings. Advocates of change want bankrupts who do have steady paychecks to be required to use some future earnings to pay some or all of their debts. Opponents of these changes argue that bankruptcy traditionally has not touched future income, and that the harm to creditors and consumers has been overstated.
The Senate, led on this issue by Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), seems inclined to support the changes. The House, led by Reps. Peter Rodino (D-N.J.) and Caldwell Butler (R-Va.), seems disposed to resist them. So it may turn out that this important matter will be settled under tight deadline in conference committee.
Our own view is that the Senate is right, and the present bankruptcy rules need tightening. Bankruptcy has become a little too easy for debtors, at too great a cost to other borrowers and consumers. But it's also true that broad changes in social standards have contributed to the increasingly common resort to bankruptcy. The changes that can be accomplished by this kind of amendment are, at best, limited.