Warning bankers to take him seriously, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse M. D'Amato vowed Wednesday that he would get his legislation banning ATM surcharges enacted this year by any means necessary.
"Make no mistake, we are going to bring this bill to a vote of the full Senate prior to the end of this legislative session," the New York Republican said in an effort to dispel any notions that his threats are merely election-year rhetoric.
He added that he would seek to attach the ban to nonbanking legislation if needed to get it passed before Congress adjourns in early October. Though the House is not expected to vote on the measure this session, it could still become law as part of broader legislation approved by both chambers.
Though banking industry witnesses reiterated arguments that the proposal is a form of price fixing and that consumers can easily avoid these fees, lawmakers from both parties responded that they had lost patience with the free market.
"The only thing that has spread faster than these surcharges has been the Florida brush fires," Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn. "It was my hope that competitive pressures would act to keep fees low."
Sen. Dodd added that he was concerned that banks would use skyrocketing fee income to compensate for lax underwriting standards. "I can't help but wonder whether the profit from the fees ... isn't giving bank officials a false sense of security about their lending practices."
Sen. D'Amato repeated findings from a recent General Accounting Office report that the average surcharge is expected to reach $1.38 by yearend, up from 99 cents at the end of 1995. The GAO also found that noncustomers have to pay surcharges at 79% of ATMs.
But, in a preview of a government study to be released this week, a Congressional Budget Office official testified that in 1997 that the number of ATM transactions conducted by noncustomers had declined.
"Cardholders have responded to surcharges by changing their use of ATMs, which is blunting the effects of high ATM fees," said Jan Paul Acton, assistant director of the CBO.
Mr. Acton said the evidence is inconclusive on whether surcharges are forcing customers to shift deposits away from community banks to big banks that control ATM networks.