It didn’t take long for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) to go on the offensive against newly declared presidential contender Joe Biden reminding everyone that before the former vice president was everyone’s beloved Uncle Joe, he was a senator who did the bidding of big finance at the expense of the American people. “Our disagreement is a matter of public record,” Warren said Thursday. “I got in that fight because [families] just didn’t have anyone, and Joe Biden is on the side of the credit card companies.”
The fight Warren was talking about? The decade-long battle to make it harder for Americans to turn to the courts to excise their debts.
Warren began studying families in bankruptcy in the 1980s, while teaching law at several universities. Expecting to find a bunch of loose-living people taking advantage of the system (a belief many Americans shared), she instead discovered Americans beset by stagnant incomes and increasing medical bills. The experience didn’t just change her mind about why Americans seek protection from creditors in the courts; it led her to ultimately change her party registration from Republican to Democrat.
But bankruptcy policy simply wasn’t a matter of Republicans bad, Democrats good. Biden, then a veteran senator from Delaware, was a lead supporter of the bankruptcy law changes sought by financial services giants. Indeed, he was such a staunch advocate of the credit card companies that he acquired the moniker “the senator from MBNA,” a reference to a large credit card company then based in Delaware that gave a substantial amount of money to Biden’s campaign coffers over the years. And he promoted the idea that too many people were simply seeking a way to skip out on their debts and stick the rest of us with the bill. “An awful lot of people are discharging debt who shouldn’t,” he said at one 2001 Senate hearing. “I am so sick of this self-righteous sheen put on anybody who wants to tighten up bankruptcy is really anti-debtor.” It’s worth noting that Biden’s son Hunter worked at MBNA for five years and was retained as a consultant for another five — all while Biden was backing the bankruptcy bill that would help MBNA.
Warren took Biden on both in the New York Times and in a book she co-authored, “The Two-Income Trap.” She repeatedly pointed out that standing up for women’s interests didn’t simply mean supporting the right to choose an abortion, or backing legislation to protect women from domestic violence, but it also meant looking out for their economic rights, too. And women were more likely to turn to bankruptcy than men — hit hard by what she described as a combination of “unemployment, medical bills and divorce.”
Warren eventually lost the battle in 2005, when more than a dozen Democratic senators joined Biden in voting for the change, which, among other things, all but eliminated the right for student loan debtors to offload privately issued student loans in court, substantially raised the cost of filing for protection from creditors and made it harder to discharge unsecured debt such as credit card bills. The change, according to the New York Federal Reserve, contributed to the subprime mortgage crisis. The reason? It made it both harder for people to afford their mortgage bills, while reducing their incentive to prioritize their housing payment over other monies owed. That’s as much a part of Biden’s legacy as his time as vice president.
The negative influence of corporate finance and other big business on our politics is one reason many Democratic candidates — including Biden — are eschewing corporate political action committee money. But Warren has taken it a step further, refusing to even hold private events or telephone chats with big-dollar donors, instead relying on fundraising from small-dollar donors. Biden’s nascent campaign is still looking to major donors for funds. No, he’s not taking money from corporate PACs or lobbyists, but he held a private event Thursday night at the home of a high-ranking executive for Comcast. Little wonder Warren is refusing to let bygones be bygones.