House and Senate panels are expected today to pass bankruptcy reform bills, though a veto threat issued by the White House Wednesday makes enactment uncertain.
Debate began Wednesday in House Judiciary's administrative law subcommittee on a bill that would use a formula to determine whether consumers could eliminate unsecured debts in Chapter 7 or repay them in Chapter 13. Consumers generally would be barred from Chapter 7 if, after accounting for certain expenses, they could repay over five years at least 25% of unsecured credit, or $5,000.
The Senate Judiciary Committee begins voting today on legislation that would let bankruptcy judges force consumers to repay unsecured debt if, after certain expenses, they could afford to repay 25% of unsecured debt, or $15,000. Under both bills, the exempted expenses include living expenses, priority claims such as child support, and secured debts.
The Clinton administration's veto threat was aimed at the House bill though most of its objections also apply to the Senate bill.
"Debtors affected by a means test must be given a meaningful opportunity to have their specific circumstances considered by bankruptcy courts," Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob J. Lew wrote lawmakers. "Our position from last year has not changed."
Bankruptcy reform legislation advanced quickly last year, but was blocked at the end of the session by Senate Democrats. The administration had said it would veto that bill as well.
The administration said this year's legislation must ensure that consumers who need help are allowed to use Chapter 7 to wipe out unsecured debt.
Mr. Lew said the administration would prefer that consumers be allowed to eliminate all credit card debt in bankruptcy, but added the White House might make an exception for debt incurred fraudulently or to buy luxury goods on the eve of declaring insolvency.
The administration also wants to close loopholes that allow residents in some states to shield expensive homes from bankruptcy, require additional, unspecified protections for credit card holders, and permit the courts to impose penalties on creditors who deliberately violate a debtor's rights.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler unveiled the veto letter when the House Judiciary subcommittee started voting. He urged Republican lawmakers to drop the bill and start over. "Another futile war of words will accomplish nothing," he said. The panel is expected to finish voting on the legislation today.
Earlier Wednesday, Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., promoted legislation requiring credit card lenders to specify how long it would take a consumer to repay his balance by only making the minimum monthly payment.
Expected to be tacked on to the bankruptcy bills in both chambers, the legislation also would bar credit card companies from charging consumers extra if they pay their balance in full each month and require more detailed disclosure of fees and interest charges.
"We are being very free market and Adam Smith-ian," said Sen. Schumer, who is a member of the Senate Banking and Judiciary committees. "We want full disclosure."
"We are trying to build in some very basic protections," said Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-N.Y. "It is nothing onerous. You ought to be told that by paying the minimum rate you might be paying off that $3,000 loan for 30 years."