Despite a booming economy, the number of personal bankruptcy filings keeps escalating, hitting record numbers last year for the third consecutive year and again in the first quarter of this year.

From 1996 to 1997, filings jumped 20 percent to 1.35 million, or one in every 70 households. Maryland and Northern Virginia, two regions at the forefront of the economic boom, had some of the biggest increases in bankruptcy filings in the country, with one in every 58 households filing for bankruptcy protection. The numbers are causing concern in Congress, where the House and Senate are expected to vote in the next few weeks on legislation cracking down on those seeking to wipe out their debt. Some lawmakers -- backed by banks, credit card companies and retailers -- say the process is too easy and that too many people with the ability to repay creditors are seeking this relief.

Miguel Rodrigues is one who recently got a new lease on life when, in less than five minutes, a bankruptcy trustee wiped out $49,000 in credit card bills, or more than $2,000 in monthly payments, allowing Rodrigues and his family to hang on to their Germantown town house.

"It's an embarrassment to my family but I needed help," said Rodrigues, 33, an automobile repairman who, despite having household income of $55,000, turned to credit cards whenever he got into a financial bind. That happened when his two children were born and when his wife crashed the family car.

"I wish I didn't have to do it {file for bankruptcy} but I couldn't make the mortgage payments because I was always trying to catch up paying the credit cards," he said. "It just got out of control."

Consumers such as Rodrigues filing for bankruptcy protection are creating a furor on Capitol Hill. The changes to bankruptcy laws that lawmakers are considering would mostly make it harder for people like Rodrigues to so easily wipe clean their financial slates in bankruptcy court.

"It was something you just didn't do, something you didn't want your family or your friends to know about," said Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), a key supporter of bankruptcy reform legislation in the House. "But now it's no big deal. It's a way of doing business. I can't completely explain why the stigma is gone, but it's gone."

Consumer groups and economists say banks and credit card issuers are to blame. Credit is too easy to obtain and available even to those who already are financially strapped, they say, arguing that tightening bankruptcy laws would do little to stem the flood of such filings.

Filing for bankruptcy isn't painless. A record of the filing could stay on a person's credit record for up to 10 years, which would make getting a loan difficult.

"Those who want to say {that} the way to solve rising consumer bankruptcy is by changing the law are the same people who would have said during a malaria epidemic that the way to cut down on hospital admissions is to lock the door," said Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard University law school professor who studies bankruptcies.

"Bankruptcy is only the symptom, not the problem," she said. "The problem is the amount of consumer debt we've got and the way families are failing because of it."

The debate has intensified in recent years because personal bankruptcy filings are rising rapidly in the midst of a booming economy, which has been creating more jobs, increasing wages and putting more spending money in the pockets of consumers. Bankruptcy filings by businesses, in contrast, have remained relatively constant.

Among the proposals being debated in Congress is a "means test" that is intended to move some filers from a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing to a Chapter 11 filing, which requires a repayment plan.

The measure has stirred criticism from a variety of fronts including First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who said the legislation would hurt single parents who are owed child support. Such payments would have to compete with credit card debt in collections from parents who file for bankruptcy protection.

But proponents of the bill said child support payments would continue to be a priority and only after the support had been paid would credit card debt be considered for payment.

"The bills currently under consideration on Capitol Hill would in no way change the priority of those payments," a coalition of banks and retail groups said in a statement.

Six hearings have been held in the Senate and the House. The last time the law was changed, in 1978, Congress spent nearly five years and held three dozen hearings on the matter.

"Other than the IRS tax code and Social Security, more American families are affected by the bankruptcy law than any other federal law," said Brady Williamson, chairman of the National Bankruptcy Review Commission.

At the heart of the bankruptcy reform debate are people who defy stereotypes. They are mechanics, Marines and computer programmers. They are single urban residents, baby boomers with children and senior citizens. They are white, black and Asian.

"The increase has been across the board, geographically, socially and demographically," Williamson said. "There is no one set description for an individual who files for bankruptcy."

But what they increasingly have in common, bankruptcy attorneys and economists say, are huge credit card debts and a sudden downturn in their lives, such as divorce or illness. Many racked up tens of thousands of dollars on several cards, some to maintain their lifestyle while others viewed credit cards as life preservers until they could get their finances in order.

"It helped pay for groceries and clothes. It let us go on for a little longer," said a Landover medical technician who filed for Chapter 7 liquidation last month after he couldn't pay his $900 monthly mortgage. A credit card company had garnisheed $400 a month of his $1,800 monthly paycheck. He requested that his name not be used because he didn't want to jeopardize future job opportunities.

But many bankruptcy filers recently interviewed at trustee hearings in Alexandria and Greenbelt said the availability of credit wasn't their entire problem. It was the ease of using credit cards at places such as gasoline station pumps and supermarket checkout lines, which allowed these consumers to rack up debt quickly, almost without realizing it.

Though many of these filers blamed their spending habits, they also said situations in their lives that were out of their control helped cause their finances to crumble.

"We were paying off what we could, but it really got out of hand," said a 40-year-old Arlington hotel manager, who, with his 38-year-old wife, earns $45,000 a year. They had amassed $35,000 in credit card debt, mainly to pay for their college tuition and expenses for their two children.

"When we were single, it wasn't so much of a burden. But now we have two kids and all of these children's expenses," he said. "We can't catch up."

William and Sylvia Evans of Wheaton found that they couldn't afford to make the payments on more than $12,000 in credit card debt after Sylvia was laid off as a secretary six months ago, cutting their combined income by one third. For the first few months they managed, but soon they were on the verge of being evicted from their apartment as they struggled to pay their bills.

"I had nothing to borrow against and the bills kept piling up," said William Evans, a mailman who earns about $34,000 a year. "We just couldn't work it out and that's why we're hanging on the mercy of the court."

Rockville bankruptcy attorney Jon D. Pels said consumers don't have much room to make a mistake because many incomes have not budged despite a robust economy.

"Even people in the middle and upper middle class are living paycheck to paycheck," Pels said. "When something unexpected happens that is outside their control, it makes them fall behind on payments and then it snowballs."

Ironically, an economic boom contributes to more busts as families spend more and in turn incur more debt, said Samuel J. Gerdano, executive director of the American Bankruptcy Institute.

"Like overeating causes obesity, rising consumer spending is adding to the debt burden," Gerdano said.

Lawrence E. Ausubel, an economics professor at the University of Maryland, said household debt as a percentage of disposable income has risen dramatically, to 83 percent last year from about 58 percent in 1984.

The rise in household debt was particularly dramatic shortly after the credit card industry was deregulated in the early 1980s and the ceiling on interest rates crumbled, Ausubel said. Soon, massive credit card solicitations and loosening of credit requirements followed.

Ausubel contends that the proposed changes to the laws may have an unintended effect of increasing filings. By making it harder for individuals to wipe out unsecured debt such as credit card bills in bankruptcy, bank profits would rise, enticing banks to expand consumer lending rather than shrink it.

"In our effort to reduce the number of personal bankruptcies we only increase the number of overextended consumers," Ausubel said.

Credit card officials, who have been leading the push for the changes in the law, said the industry is being used as a scapegoat. The officials contend that credit cards have helped individuals ride out financial difficulties. The changes they are seeking would weed out individuals who are abusing the bankruptcy laws to skirt paying back their debt, they say.

"What the reform effort is all about is to ensure that people get the amount of relief that they actually need, no more or no less," said William Binzel, senior vice president for MasterCard, the world's second largest credit card brand.

Meanwhile, bankruptcy filings keep rising and filers say they view this as an opportunity to start over.

Erica Harper, a 25-year-old Bowie resident, said making the bankruptcy process harder would have slammed the door on her future. Harper said she was never employed long enough to collect unemployment benefits or health insurance and as a result when she got ill recently she relied on emergency care. She accumulated $20,000 in medical expenses, which she tried to repay by borrowing from her grandparents, one of whom died recently. "Lots of people think filing for bankruptcy means you've got something to hide," she said. "I have nothing. I'm more worried about living." CAPTION: SEEKING PROTECTION As household debt has risen . . . Debt as a percentage of disposable income 1992: 76.6% 1997: 83% . . . so has credit card delinquency . . . Average rate of credit card delinquency for bank-issued credit cards 1992: 4.1% 1997: 4.9% . . . as has the number of bankruptcy filings . . . Bankruptcy filings, in millions 1992: 968,700 1997: 1.4 million . . . with Maryland and Virginia reporting bankruptcy rates higher than the national rate as well as D.C.'s rate. Percentage of households filing for bankruptcy U.S.

1.43% Maryland, Virginia 1.72% D.C.

1.10% SOURCES: Professor Lawrence E. Ausubel, University of Maryland; Administration Office of the U.S. Courts; the Nilson Report