WASHINGTON The fates of two top priorities of the financial services lobby bankruptcy reform and digital signature legislation are becoming entwined on Capitol Hill.
Republican leaders are pressuring House and Senate negotiators to strike a behind-the-scenes deal on bankruptcy reform. Senators in a bipartisan contingent have proposed a deal; House members are expected to counter over the next two weeks.
If a compromise is reached, it would be attached to the digital signature legislation. Though controversial, this bill has gained momentum recently and could be the engine that drives both to enactment.
Skeptics, however, fear that linking these two prized pieces of legislation will sink both instead of securing a dual victory.
Its a terrible idea, said a veteran industry lobbyist who spoke on condition of anonymity. He emphasized that even if a deal is reached on the tricky bankruptcy bill, the digital signature bill is nowhere close to settlement because several competing proposals remain. And the Clinton administration has battled Republicans on both bills and threatened to veto bankruptcy reform.
I dont see how hooking up two controversial bills will decrease the controversy, the lobbyist said.
Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers and Commerce Secretary William M. Daley seem to agree. They urged members of the House-Senate conference committee on digital signature legislation in an April 19 letter to complete legislation quickly, without the addition of extraneous measures, so that the bill will receive strong, bipartisan support.
Congress last effort to link two major financial bills was disastrous.
That was in March 1998, when House Republican leaders tried to combine a bill relaxing limits on credit union membership with financial reform legislation. House Republican Conference Chairman John A. Boehner vowed that the measure would provide rocket fuel to propel the reform bill, but the plan backfired under heavy opposition from Democrats and the banking industry. Republicans had to yank the bill at the last minute, delaying House passage of reform legislation for six weeks. (It stalled later that year in the Senate for other reasons, but was enacted in November 1999.)
Edward L. Yingling, chief lobbyist for the American Bankers Association, argued Monday that this situation is different. Unlike in 1998, lawmakers are trying to get around a technical problem and not political resistance, he said.
The biggest impediment to the bankruptcy bill have been unrelated provisions in the Senate version that would raise the minimum wage and cut taxes levied on small businesses. They have created a procedural snafu, because the House bill has no corresponding provisions and the Constitution requires that tax matters originate in the House.
As a result, lawmakers have been unable to form a conference committee to reconcile the differing versions since the Senate adopted the legislation Feb. 2 in an 83-14 vote. (Last May the House approved a stricter version favored by the industry.)
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle have reportedly agreed that the best solution is to craft a compromise that excludes the minimum wage and tax cuts and insert it into a separate, fast-moving bill. Digital signature legislation is the favorite, lobbyists and congressional sources said, but other candidates have been discussed.
The digital signature legislation would guarantee the validity of online contracts and let financial services companies make mortgage and other disclosures required by consumer protection laws electronically instead of on paper.
Informal talks are under way, led by the bankruptcy bills sponsors, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, and Rep. George W. Gekas, R-Pa. Senate staffers in early April made a 15-page offer that strongly resembles the Senate bill but makes some key concessions.
Several changes were proposed to toughen the Senate bills needs-based standards for determining whether bankruptcy filers may have their debts eliminated in Chapter 7 of the bankruptcy code or must be forced to repay some of them under Chapter 13.
For instance, the compromise would let bankruptcy judges force debtors who could afford to repay the lower of $10,000 or 25% of unsecured debt over five years. That would nearly split the difference between the House and Senate bills, which would set the thresholds at $6,000 and $15,000 respectively.
It would preserve a consumer-friendly provision in the Senate version that would require credit card companies to warn customers about the cost of making the minimum monthly payment and to give standard illustrative examples or mathematical tables to help customers estimate their indebtedness.
It would also slightly toughen limits on the dischargeability of luxury goods or cash advances obtained before a bankruptcy filing, a practice known as loading up. The compromise would not permit these purchases if they exceed $750 and occur 90 days before filing; the Senate version had set the time limit at a more permissive 70 days.
The proposal punts on some sticky issues, such as barring someone who attacks an abortion clinic from writing off in bankruptcy any financial penalties.
They made some compromises that moved toward our bill, said a House staff member, who declined to say whether they were enough. A counteroffer is expected by the second week of May.