The payday loan industry is spending big on politics in advance of expected scrutiny from the federal government’s new financial watchdog agency.
After lobbying heavily before the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill became law in 2010, the top payday lenders did not slack off last year, and the companies have become a bigger source of campaign contributions for political candidates this election cycle, according to a report from the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).
Payday lenders are used by people who need a short-term loan between paychecks. The loans, typically as small as a few hundred dollars and only lasting two weeks, have fees that are equivalent to annual interest rates of several hundred percent. People taking out the loan typically provide a personal check that can be cashed once the loan is due.
The industry, besieged by bad publicity, has made a dramatic increase in its investment in the influence game in recent years. Eleven big lenders and the two trade associations representing the industry have increased their spending on lobbying from $730,000 in 2005 to $4.5 million in 2011, according to CREW’s report.
One of the industry’s main trade associations, the Financial Service Centers of America, moved its headquarters to Washington in 2011, signaling that federal regulation was an increasing focus of concern.
“They are spending more and more money all the time in Washington to stem legislation that would cost them money,” said Melanie Sloan, CREW’s executive director. “They are a perfect example of how Washington works.”
Employees of the top companies and their political action committees already have made $1.3 million in political contributions this election cycle, putting them on pace to soon exceed the $1.5 million given in the entire 2007-2008 period.
The payday loan industry is one of the top targets for the newly empowered Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created by the Dodd-Frank law. In January, President Obama made a recess appointment of Richard Cordray, then the Ohio attorney general, to head the agency, allowing it to begin work examining non-banks such as payday lenders.
At a recent field hearing in Alabama focused on payday loans, Cordray said that “it is important that these products actually help consumers, rather than harm them.”
The top three recipients of money from the industry are three vocal critics of the new bureau, each getting about $30,000 in campaign contributions: Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Tex.), chairman of the House Republican Conference; Sen. Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; and Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.
Republican lawmakers had blocked Cordray’s appointment in hopes of getting a series of structural changes to the agency, including subjecting it to the congressional appropriations process and creating a board of directors to oversee its work. None of the changes targeted payday lenders specifically, but they would have constrained some of the new agency’s power.
In 2010, the three top recipients of industry money were members of the Democratic Party, which then controlled the House.
“Our contributions, which have always been bipartisan, represent less than 1 percent of donations given by the broader financial services sector,” said Steven Schlein, a spokesman for the Community Financial Services Association of America, another trade group representing lenders. “Like any other individuals, corporations or advocacy groups, our members exercise the right to participate in the political process.”
David Popp, a spokesman for Hensarling, said he “believes that those who assist in his reelection effort are supporting what he is doing, not the other way around.”
Bachus’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Shelby spokeswoman Julie Eckert said “contributions have no influence on Senator Shelby’s policy positions. Any assertion to the contrary is baseless.”
Payday lenders also have contributed $162,500 to a super PAC backing Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who has pledged to repeal Dodd-Frank.