The Democratic party brushed aside the question of usury last spring when Congress decided not to impose any limits on the ruinous interest rates charged by major banks and other lenders. But usury is now back on the table, put in play by Metro IAF, an alliance of two dozen faith-based community organizations affiliated nationwide with the Industrial Areas Foundation. These politically savvy community groups draw their members from diverse religions and across the usual divisions of race and class. They are staging face-to-face “actions” to confront bankers and politicians around the country with a blunt moral message. Usury is a sin, Judaism, Christianity and Islam agree, and must be stopped.
This demand is expressed in their slogan: “Ten Percent Is Enough.” The campaign seeks a legal ceiling of ten percent imposed on the interest rates for credit cards and predatory practices like “payday loans.” Ten percent approximates the old ceiling on interest rates before 1980, when deregulation repealed the federal law against usury. Ten percent is also the tithe religious adherents give to their churches. As one IAF campaigner put it, “If 10 percent is good enough for God, it should be enough for the bankers.”
The anti-usury initiative was launched in mid-summer, from Boston to North Carolina, from New York City to the Midwest, and has already produced some startling results. In Massachusetts, the leading candidate for Ted Kennedy’s old Senate seat, Attorney General Martha Coakley, answered “yes, yes, yes, yes” to the demands expressed by the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, when 800 of its members turned out to address the candidates.
Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York heard about the anti-usury actions and contacted the organizers to say she is introducing a bill to cap interest rates at 16 percent. Slaughter evidently changed her mind about usury. Last spring, as chair of the powerful House Rules committee, Slaughter blocked similar measures and would not even allow a floor vote on the issue. Many Democrats want to avoid a roll call on usury because it will compel them choose between their constituents and the bankers.
The most startling development for the anti-usury campaign is the endorsement from the CEO of Citigroup, Vikram Pandit. Like other leading banks, Citi has been kicking up its credit-card rates as high as 30 percent, even as Citi is kept afloat with billions from the taxpayers. Nonetheless, Pandit told editorial writers at the Boston Globe he would support a legal ceiling on interest rates if it is applied industry-wide. “We’re completely in support of having a rational rate structure.” Pandit said.
The Citigroup executive did not endorse a specific ceiling, but cited the example of the 10 percent credit cards his bank introduced several years ago, believing other banks would follow and lower their rates too (when they didn’t, Citi lost money in the venture). The Globe‘s exchange with Pandit was most likely inspired by news stories about the anti-usury actions in Boston.