Merchants unhappy with interchange fees are making sure the Senate Judiciary Committee's new chairman - and his constituents - hear their complaints.
The Merchants Payments Coalition, a Washington group of about 30 trade associations, launched a print and radio advertising campaign last week that criticize the "secret fees" paid ultimately by consumers. Not surprisingly, the ads are running in Washington, but they are also running in Vermont, the home state of Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the Democrat who regained his chairmanship of the committee this month.
The previous chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., held a hearing last year on interchange.
"The ranking member of the committee, Sen. Specter, is very interested in interchange fees, but given the change in Congress, Sen. Specter can't schedule hearings like Sen. Leahy can," said Jaret Seiberg, a financial services policy analyst at Stanford Washington Research Group. "This appears to be an effort to get Sen. Leahy's attention and to keep interchange fees on the front burner."
The print ads say: "Turns out it wasn't the Grinch who stole Christmas after all. The credit card companies took a bite out of every present you bought with their cards."
Mallory Duncan, the general counsel for the National Retail Federation and the coalition's chairman, said Vermont is a state "where people understand the message, and also the political leadership there should not be ignored."
The state also "has a number of smaller retailers who are hit particularly hard by credit card companies' interchange policy," he said.
Mr. Duncan would not say whether Vermont was targeted because its senior senator heads the committee that deals with interchange. "I'm not going to speak of the tactics or the politics of who it is that we speak to in terms of this issue," he said.
Mr. Seiberg said it was too early to say which way Sen. Leahy may lean on the interchange issue, "but he certainly, given his history in the Senate, would have an inclination to side with small retailers."
A press officer for Sen. Leahy would not discuss the matter on Thursday.
Kathy Miller, a Vermont retailer, spoke at Sen. Leahy's invitation at the interchange hearing the Judiciary Committee held in July. She told the panel that her business was threatened by the fees it pays for accepting cards, and she blamed MasterCard Inc., Visa U.S.A. Inc., and their member banks.
At the hearing, Sen. Leahy said: "We need to bring more transparency to the entire system. We need a closer look."
Sen. Specter was much less measured in his criticisms and recommendations at the hearing.
The consolidated lawsuit filed by merchants against MasterCard, Visa, and their member banks in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York "does not preclude the Congress from setting new rules on antitrust violations," he said.
"Australia has gone to price fixes, and I'm not suggesting that," Sen. Specter said. But when he learned that it took a U.S. government suit to get MasterCard and Visa to allow their member banks to issue cards on the Discover and Amex networks, "I was really impressed with the power of Visa and MasterCard."
Though members of both parties have taken up the interchange issue, Brian Gardner, a policy analyst at KBW Inc.'s Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc., said: "Democrats are sympathetic toward legislative intervention. I think Republicans would prefer regulators handle it themselves and Congress not get involved."
Rhonda Bentz, a Visa spokeswoman in Washington, said the ads do not tell the "whole story," which is that merchants want to shift the cost of accepting credit cards directly to consumers.