PI Original Adam Doster Wednesday April 29th, 2009, 2:00pm

Durbin On Congress: The Banks "Own The Place"

In an interview with WJJG's Ray Hanania on Monday, the senior senator from Illinois stated outright that the banks "own" Capitol Hill.

So far this session, Sen. Dick Durbin has stood behind consumers like no other public official in Washington.  He has served as the Senate Democrats' de facto point man on student aid reform, mortgage bankruptcy reform, usury reform, financial product safety, and consumer credit abuse. And around every corner, he's been met with resistance by banking industry lobbyists. In an interview with WJJG's Ray Hanania on Monday, the senior senator from Illinois stated outright that the banks "own" Capitol Hill. Listen (full audio here):

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DURBIN: And the banks -- hard to believe in a time when we're facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created -- are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place.

The ongoing negotiations about credit card reform legislation nicely illustrate Durbin's point. According to Hill sources, the U.S. House of Representatives is likely to vote on H.R. 627, otherwise known as the Credit Card Holders’ Bill of Rights Act, as early as Thursday. But it doesn't seem likely that the federal bill will be implemented quickly enough to help strapped consumers this year. For that, we can thank the banks.

Last year, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) proposed the bill of rights as a way to clean up this unregulated industry. The bill would stop credit card companies from raising interest rates on balances incurred under an old rate, would let consumers pay off loans with higher interest rates first, and would stop unfair late fees and “universal default” (the odious practice of raising interest rates on accounts in good standing when a borrower falls behind on other bills). While the bill eventually died in the Senate, Maloney reintroduced a similar version again this year and it has since passed the House Financial Services Committee.

But there's a catch. Originally, Maloney's bill required the banks to change their practices 90 days after passage. But a bipartisan group of lawmakers (including Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a recent thorn in the side of consumer groups) amended the bill earlier this month, pushing the effective date to either 12 months after passage or July 1, 2010. This had been a demand put forth by the financial services industry, which claimed that the changes would neccessitate countless hours to implement. 

Why is that important? The Federal Reserve passed new credit card rules in December that are scheduled to take hold in ...  July 2010, rendering the Congressional legislation rather meaningless. When the Fed announced its changes, Democrats decried the extended timeline. But all it took was pressure from the banks to change their tune. And that will have a painful effect on consumers in the interim, as the Washington Independent's Mike Lillis writes:

That spells bad news for credit card users, as banks in recent weeks have installed a series of fee and rate hikes to churn profits in a struggling economy. In many cases the increases come without any warning to consumers, and they often apply to balances accrued even before the hikes arrive.

“Unfortunately the way the market place is working, [card users] could use more protection, not less,” said Graham Steele, an attorney at Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. “Consumers need relief now, and yet these bills are being weakened.” 

Meanwhile, Durbin's bankruptcy reform bill is on course to be gutted by the Senate today, according to the Huffington Post's Ryan Grim. Just another example of Wall Street's outsized influence.

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