WASHINGTON Members of the House Judiciary Committee sparred Wednesday over the need for, and contents of, bankruptcy overhaul legislation as Democrats vowed not to roll over for the Republicans.
Democrats on the famously polarized panel, which is scheduled to vote on the bill next week, are expected to try to rewrite much of it before then. The bill is now nearly identical to legislation the House and Senate passed by overwhelming margins late last year but that then-President Clinton refused to sign.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., indicated that the amendments are likely to include and go beyond those from last year that would require more detailed disclosures on credit card statements and block abortion-clinic attackers from using bankruptcy laws to avoid paying court-ordered damages.
You can put all the disclosure you want in this bill, Rep. Nadler said. This bill is still a multibillion-dollar ripoff to consumers to the benefit of the credit card industry and nobody else.
Republicans, nevertheless, are moving full steam ahead.
House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said that he hopes to have the bill which would relieve creditors from having to shoulder most bankruptcy filers debts ready for House consideration by Feb. 19.
The Senate plan for action on the bill is less clear. The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hear testimony on the legislation today but had not announced by Wednesday afternoon whether it would vote on the bill or send it directly to the Senate for consideration. Majority Leader Trent Lott said Monday that debate in the Senate could begin as early as Monday.
House Judiciary members agreed on little during a hearing Wednesday, where proponents of bankruptcy reform testified that bankruptcy laws need to be revamped.
Democrats argued that bankruptcy reform is unnecessary because consumer bankruptcy filings dropped 8.3% from 1998 to 1999.
There has been a substantial decline over the course of the last two years, said Rep. William D. Delahunt, D-Mass.
R. Bruce Josten, head of government affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the decline does not compensate for the fact that filings have skyrocketed in recent years.
Its fair to say we had a significant rise far beyond any decrease in filings, he said. He noted that consumer bankruptcies reached a record high in 1998, with nearly 1.4 million filings.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Tex., complained that this bill offers no consumer protections. Witness Kenneth H. Beine, president of Shoreline Credit Union in Two Rivers, Wis., countered that even under the new legislation the bankruptcy code is still leaning on the side of the consumer.
Democrats will not be alone in fighting for changes to the legislation.
Republican committee member Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia said his side may try to remove some clauses to bring the legislation closer a tougher version the House originally passed in May 1999.
There also were a few things that were added in last time just to try to secure a signing by the President. Obviously it didnt work, Rep. Barr said, because President Clinton in December let the legislation lapse without signing it.
There may be an effort to amend some of those things out because they were not really necessary for the substance of the bill, he said, but declined to say what those things were.
Banking lobbyists said they were happy the troubled bill is on the fast track, but that they worried anti-industry amendments could be added during committee and full-chamber votes.
The worst-case scenario is the bill gets amended to a point where parties within the creditor community find them to be extremely injurious to the bill, said John Hanley, director of legislative strategy at the Independent Community Bankers of America.
Some predicted that Republicans would succeed in keeping the bill intact in committee, and allow limited amendments during full House consideration of the measure.