Posted on Wednesday, March 16, 2005
With many Americans entering NCAA college basketball betting pools this
week, it occurred to me that C-SPAN might get a ratings boost if U.S.
senators wore brightly colored uniforms with numbers on their backs.
Think about it. Millions who can’t tell a match-up zone from a
no-parking zone are wagering good money on the Opossum State
Marsupials’ chances of upsetting the Fighting Toll Booth Collectors of UNJ. Yet
only a tiny fraction can tell you how their senator voted on a bankruptcy
"reform" law that among other outrages puts credit card companies ahead
of child support payments in collecting from deadbeat dads. That’s
right, sports fans. The corporate shills who peddle unsecured credit to
teenagers and house pets via bulk mail and Internet pop-up ads, seduce
them into debt, then pummel them with late fees, excess-spending
penalties and 40 percent interest rates now want to prevent the poor
saps from escaping through bankruptcy.
That’s where colored uniforms might come in handy: As one would expect,
every last Republican in the U.S. Senate voted for the so called
Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005.
Favoring corporations over individuals is what Republicans do. But
then, so did 17 Democrats, including Sens. Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln of
Arkansas. Yet even some Republicans would have hesitated to vote for
the fool thing had their constituents known what team they were playing
Republicans, as usual, stated their views in moralistic terms. "I think
everybody knows when they take those credit cards and they accrue debt,
they are supposed to repay that debt," said Orrin Hatch of Utah.
"Frankly, we have far too many people taking advantage of credit cards
and not paying their debt."
Can I get an amen? Truth is, almost everybody agrees. Hardly anybody
wants to take bankruptcy. Most regard it as a personal shame. But many
of us also know somebody who accidentally on purpose ran a credit card
pyramid scam, using card B to make payments on card A, card C to pay B,
etc., until running up a huge debt and defaulting. A bankruptcy reform
dedicated to catching deliberate cheats is one everybody could support.
But that’s not what we’re about to get. Statistics show that of the 1.4
million Americans filing for personal bankruptcy last year, the
overwhelming majority’s troubles were caused by personal misfortune:
mostly job loss, divorce and sudden medical expenses. Medical
emergencies alone caused more than half, and three quarters of those
were people who had health insurance but couldn’t afford costs their
policies didn’t cover.
With this in mind, Democrats proposed a series of what would strike
most people as common-sense amendments to the draconian bill essentially
dictated by the financial services industry. Sen. Ted Kennedy of
Massachusetts proposed exempting from tougher repayment standards
families whose bankruptcy was caused by medical emergencies. Sen. Dick
Durbin of Illinois wanted to exempt military men and women financially
hurt after being called to active duty. Sen. Mark Dayton of Minnesota
proposed a 30 percent limit on credit card interest rates. Thirty
Voting almost unanimously, Republicans defeated them all. Never mind
that the Bible they’re so fond of citing in other (mostly sexual)
contexts literally equates usurers with hit men. (" In you [Jerusalem]
men accept bribes to shed blood; you take usury and excessive interest
and make unjust gain from your neighbors by extortion.... I will surely
strike my hands together at the unjust gain you have made and at the
blood you have shed in your midst. ")
Republicans also rejected $150,000 equity exemptions letting people
keep their houses, homestead protection for the elderly, even a
truth-in-lending amendment requiring credit card statements to specify
the total dollar cost of repaying credit card balances by minimum
monthly payments. (The average American family carries $8,000 in
plastic debt.) Republicans also refused to limit so-called asset protection
trusts, used by the wealthy (they’re expensive to create) to shield
their assets in bankruptcy proceedings.
In short, if Grandma gets breast cancer, Grandpa belongs to the credit
card company; it’s basically sharecropping, 21st century style.
So what persuaded any Senate Democrats to vote for it? Well, that’s
where the idea of red or blue uniforms gets complicated. Fortunately,
NASCAR has the solution. Its drivers wear large, brightly colored
decals advertising their corporate sponsors. If we outfitted U.S. senators the
same way, Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., would wear a big MBNA patch for the
financial services corporation headquartered in his state. Sen. Joe
Lieberman, D-Conn., who provided a key vote in favor of closing debate,
then boasted about opposing the final bill after its passage was safely
assured, might wear the insignia of Hartford Financial Services. Our
own Blanche Lincoln might choose the logos of some of her largest campaign
contributors: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan
Chase and the American Bankers Association.
–––—Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and
recipient of the National Magazine Award.