WASHINGTON — A Senate Banking Committee hearing on Thursday made it clear there is significant support in that chamber for a credit card reform bill — but it remained uncertain how high a priority the issue is for Chairman Chris Dodd.
Though the Connecticut Democrat is the author of the bill, which would ban practices such as double-cycle billing, Sen. Dodd rattled off a list of other priorities that may need to be addressed first, including dealing with the financial crisis and enacting mortgage bankruptcy reform. What was surprising, however, was that even relatively subtier items appeared on the list.
"We've got flood insurance," Sen. Dodd told reporters when asked his timetable for the bill. "We've got the surface transportation bill that's coming up. We've got the Defense Production Act. We've got a lot of things to grapple with, and obviously we've got to be able to walk and chew gum, and this is a committee with jurisdiction in a lot of issues coming our way."
Sen. Dodd's comments come even though the odds of passing a bill out of the Senate appear to be improving. Democrats have secured a larger majority in Congress; a chief defender of the credit card industry, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., has left the Banking Committee; and most of the other panel Democrats have publicly supported Sen. Dodd's bill or introduced their own.
The political environment also favors tougher reform, with much of the public angry at bankers in general for taking government money.
But asked whether changes on his committee make it easier to pass a bill, Sen. Dodd said he had not yet considered counting votes.
At the hearing Thursday, several members urged Sen. Dodd to act soon.
"Our country is in very serious credit card debt," said Sen. Daniel Akaka. "Not enough has been done to protect consumers and ensure they are able to properly manage their credit card. We must do more to educate, protect, and empower consumers."
The Hawaii Democrat said he plans to reintroduce a card bill soon that would force issuers to show consumers how long it would take to pay off their debt when making only minimum payments and to direct them to trustworthy credit counselors.
Sen. Robert Menendez said consumers are bogged down by debt and confusing pricing mechanisms. "Defaults are rising. Delinquencies are at a six-year high. We must stop this dangerous cycle," he said.
The New Jersey Democrat has introduced a bill that would require consumers under 21 to opt in for card solicitations and ban universal default and retroactive rate increases.
Sen. Dodd reintroduced his own bill Wednesday; it would tightly restrict how card companies increase interest rates and charge fees. It would ban the raising of interest rates on existing debt, and prohibit companies from charging interest on penalty fees, among other reforms.
But Sen. Dodd said after the hearing that he did not "have a timetable" for the bill, and he said passing it would not be simple.
"You can see this is not going to be one of those where everyone is going to hold hands and lead in 'Kumbaya,' " he said.
Though much of his bill echoes regulations due to be put in place in July 2010 by the Federal Reserve Board, and other regulators defining unfair and deceptive card practices, Sen. Dodd said reform should come sooner and have the force of law. "The vagaries of rulemaking always leave things subject to lots of changes, so in addition to the 18 months, I think there is a value in statutorily talking about these changes as well," he said.
During the hearing Sen. Dodd raised another card-related issue that the banking industry is perpetually fearful lawmakers will target with legislation — interchange fees.
Sen. Dodd's bill would require the Government Accountability Office to study the impact of interchange fees on merchants and consumers.
"One of my concerns about this is, it's about a $48 billion profit stream," Sen. Dodd said. Because banks make so much money from it, he said, "it creates a climate like a liar loan. The incentive whether the borrower is creditworthy reduces seriously under this system."