In Congressional circles, a bill like this one is known as a "money vote," because it's an opportunity for good fundraising from monied interests (or, if you vote wrong, you face the risk of those interests financing your next opponent). For six years, the financial industry has lobbied intensively for this measure and both parties have milked it like a veritable cash cow. Contributions from finance companies and credit-card firms more than doubled during the last election cycle, passing $9 million. Commercial banks are the dominant credit-card issuers--led by Citibank, with $99.5 billion in credit-card debt--and this remains their most profitable line of business. Commercial banking as a whole increased political spending in the last election by nearly 60 percent, to $26.1 million, though the bankers' money speaks on many issues beyond tapped-out borrowers.
When George W. Bush took office, a bankruptcy bill was the first major legislation passed by the new Congress. Bill Clinton had vetoed a milder version, but in the new circumstances many former opponents scrambled aboard. Only sixteen Democratic senators voted against the bill, led by Paul Wellstone (the measure would have become law long ago, if not for Wellstone's guerrilla resistance). The "yea" votes included a couple of new faces much celebrated as "people" politicians and presidential possibles--Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. Two other potential candidates--Russ Feingold and John Kerry--voted against it.
In the House, only 107 Democrats voted against the measure, barely half their caucus. Minority leader Richard Gephardt, another presidential aspirant, ducked by not voting. While Senator Ted Kennedy voted with the debtors, his son in the House, Representative Patrick Kennedy, voted with the bankers. Patrick counts himself in the Progressive Caucus, but he also chaired the House Democrats' fundraising operation. Cave-in Democrats often hide behind this logic: If the bill is going to pass anyway, why piss off the bankers by voting against it?
Senator Daschle's solicitude for Citibank goes deeper than the money, though he gets money, too. Daschle treats the Wall Street behemoth like a hometown industry. Two decades ago, Citibank lobbyists persuaded South Dakota politicians to be the first state to repeal its anti-usury law--an obstacle to charging sky-high interest rates. The state was rewarded by the relocation of Citibank's credit-card processing operations, now a major employer there. That lends political cover, but Daschle's loyalty also relies on personal connections. Former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, now senior executive at Citigroup, the parent conglomerate, is the Senate leader's personal guru on big-think economics. Did we mention that Citigroup was one of Enron's lead bankers and on the griddle itself? Or that, in his day job, Rubin beseeched a top-level Treasury official to intervene to save Enron? The bank's active concern for its biggest debtors in trouble does not extend to its little ones.
In legislative matters like bankruptcy, Daschle plays faithful facilitator for Citibank's interests, while graciously assuring liberal-labor groups he will help them get a floor vote on their amendments (which routinely lose). It is Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, however, who plays tough-cop enforcer for the industry (a role also shared by Senator Robert Torricelli). Delaware is home to six major credit-card operations, led by MBNA America, Chase and Bank of America. Altogether, they process indebtedness of $230 billion. Biden is their guy.
The industry's main argument for relief is that its reckless customers pile up impossible debts, then escape by gaming the bankruptcy system. No doubt this occurs, but the bank lobbyists grossly distort the stressed-out predicament of millions of ordinary working families, some of whom borrow on credit cards to pay the rent. Did the banks themselves have anything to do with fomenting the explosion of credit-card debt? Evidently not, according to Congress, because numerous amendments to impose some restraint and accountability on the lenders were rejected. In a classic twist, Democratic senators instead tossed a couple of bones to the discontented constituencies--one amendment that prevents Texas millionaires from shielding their Enron-size mansions under state homestead laws and another that bars abortion-clinic terrorists from escaping fines and lawsuits in bankruptcy court. Both are meritorious, of course, but neither speaks to the general pain this legislation will inflict on rank-and-file constituents.
It is not too late to pound on Senator Daschle. If the conference committee resolves remaining obstacles--the two amendments offered as solace to liberals--Daschle alone has the power to stop the measure by withholding it from a final floor vote. Don't hold your breath.