Jeffrey Tassey stands out in the heavily financed army of lobbyists campaigning to pass the first major bankruptcy law in a generation.
Starting seven years ago, when he was the government affairs chief of the American Financial Services Association, a creditor trade group, Mr. Tassey, who is now a partner at the Washington law firm Williams & Jensen, drummed up support for tough new legislation by promoting a simple theme of personal responsibility for debtors and advancing research on the cost of their going bankrupt. He ran ads and played a key role organizing and leading the creditors' coalition supporting bankruptcy legislation that he was instrumental in shaping. He deployed superstar lobbyists, including former Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen and former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour, to keep his campaign in the spotlight and the legislation moving through Congress.
So in March - when both houses of Congress overwhelmingly passed versions of bankruptcy bills that creditors believe could put billions in their pockets, and when a landmark law appeared to be a President's signature away - no one had more reason to celebrate than Mr. Tassey. But no corks were popped, and, with the passage of time, his reserve is mixed with concern.
"I'm not taking anything for granted," says Mr. Tassey, a tall, solid 47-year-old native of Annapolis, Md. "I still think the bill will be passed, but once you stop working, that's when you're looking for trouble."
Creditor lobbyists have good reason for staying on their toes in shepherding the bill toward the finish line. They've been down this path before without success, and for Mr. Tassey there is more pressure to finally get something enacted.
"He did strategy for lobbyists working for passage and the bills have gotten a lot of bad press," says Travis Plunkett, a lobbyist for the Consumer Federation of America, which opposes the bill.
Mr. Tassey is concerned enough that while he prefers to work behind the scenes and disparages the press as anti-business, he is willing to take a chance at cooperating with the media to promote the legislation and counter other critics as well.
Consumer advocates and academics are also on the attack, saying the legislation greatly favors creditors over debtors. Even some advocates for change in bankruptcy laws say the income means test - a first for bankruptcy reform - goes overboard in punishing debtors. And some of them say creditors are in for a letdown, that the changes won't produce the riches they're anticipating.
Mr. Tassey has to keep his eye on his own side as well. Not all has always gone smoothly. As a result, the basic debt-collection primer he started off with has grown into a tome reflecting sometimes competing or conflicting interests of credit card companies, automobile financers, and subprime and prime lenders.
Eager as Mr. Tassey and his allies are to nail down a law after seven years of hard labor, the legislation has run aground. A Senate power struggle in a house divided equally between Democrats and Republicans has stalled the bills. The impasse affects other legislation, but arguably the bankruptcy bill more than most because of a lingering political stalemate of its own.
Florida, Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas, and Texas, the President's home state, protect residences - ranging from shacks and cottages to mansions and estates - from creditors' claims. Their representatives' Maginot defense of the exemption could jeopardize the legislation or allow some wealthy debtors to skirt their obligations - a serious blow to legislation long questioned about its fairness to middle-class debtors.
"I don't know how I can get more frustrated," Mr. Tassey says. "There isn't a lot we can do. These are institutional problems. Congress wouldn't appreciate us telling them what to do."
Still, Mr. Tassey pushes on - in the tradition of bankruptcy legislation. While the Constitution authorized Congress to adopt "uniform laws" on bankruptcy, it wasn't until 1938 that consumer legislation was enacted. The Chandler Act served the country for a generation, and attempts to update it, most notably in 1978, were useful but generally produced works with an unfinished look. In passing one of the weakest pieces of bankruptcy legislation, in 1994, Congress essentially passed the buck by creating the National Bankruptcy Review Commission to produce a study on the issue.
It was during this standoff in the bankruptcy fray that Mr. Tassey jumped in enthusiastically on the side of the creditors.
"It fit with my personal philosophy," Mr. Tassey says. "I come from the libertarian side of the equation. Bankruptcy creates an unwarranted economic redistribution."
And he knew his way around Washington. A 1978 graduate of Washington University's law school in St. Louis, Mr. Tassey worked in Congress for seven years, specializing in financial and judicial matters, the first five years as staff counsel to Rep. Douglas Barnard, a Reagan Democrat, and the last two as counsel to the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Consumer and Monetary Affairs. His next stop was the AFSA - a year before the commission was created.
"He is an untiring advocate," says H. Randolph Lively, president and chief executive of the AFSA. "He knew where he wanted to go."
Commission hearings became the starting point in rounding up support for the meaningful change that creditors wanted. Mr. Tassey met like-minded lobbyists there, and if supporters couldn't make it to the hearings, he brought the hearings to them by inviting Brady Williamson, the commission chairman, to talk at AFSA gatherings.
An explosion in personal bankruptcies in the midst of the economic boom of the mid-'90s created a sense of great possibilities for Mr. Tassey. Bankruptcies soared to 1.4 million in 1997 from 832,000 three years earlier - a gain of more than 50%.
"There had to be something wrong with the system," he says.
He bought material on bankruptcy from SMR Research, of Hackettstown, N.J., that showed there was no pattern to debtors going bust. He eventually concluded that, to a significant degree, many of the filers could pay back a portion of their debts. He put a price on the cost of bankruptcy and how much creditors could recover with tougher filing requirements. Bankruptcies totaled $44 billion or, put another way, the country's 100 million families were out some $400 each because someone else didn't pay their bills. With new bankruptcy laws that would make it harder for debtors to escape paying what they owe, Mr. Tassey, among others, reasoned that creditors could recover about $5 billion, or about 10% of the total. These were new ideas - and difficult to back up with hard data.
SMR Research president Stuart Feldstein says: "No one really knows how much debt there is in the country. I put out the $44 billion figure, but it's a rough estimate. I didn't have anything to do with how much can be collected. There's no way you could know that."
That didn't stop Mr. Tassey from trumpeting the $44 billion, $5 billion, and $400 figures and calling for consumers to develop more personal responsibility for the debts until the numbers and words became part of the Washington vocabulary. He broadcast his message in such publications as Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly to be picked up by the one audience he needed to impress, Congress. He also arranged for corporate chief executives to meet with representatives to tell their story.
"They were really masterful," a consumer advocate says of the creditor lobby. "They had a simple, easy-to-understand message for a complicated subject and they got the jump on everyone in getting it across. They had lots of ads and made plenty of campaign contributions. The competition had to play catch-up."
Among the means of promoting new legislation was the organization by Mr. Tassey and other lobbyists of what became the Coalition for Responsible Bankruptcy Laws. It also became the big tent for creditors. Besides the AFSA, its members include the American Bankers Association, the Independent Community Bankers Association, America's Community Bankers, Visa, MasterCard, and the Credit Union National Association.
Mr. Tassey, as the top lobbyist for the AFSA, whose members included General Electric Capital Corp., General Motors Acceptance Corp., Ford Motor Credit Co., Household Financial, Providian Financial, CitiFinancial, MBNA America, and CapitalOne, soon took on the responsibility of leading the coalition. Part of the reason was practical. Many of the other trade associations were caught up in the mid-'90s with overturning the Glass-Steagall Act and didn't have the time or inclination to devote to bankruptcy legislation. Another factor was motivation. A number of major AFSA members were credit card companies that had more to lose in the rising tide of bankruptcies. While their share of the debt was relatively small, consumers put a lower priority on paying back their credit card bills - if they could pay anything at all - than, say, home mortgage payments to their bank.
The credit card marketer MBNA, for example, made sure Washington knew it was around during the development of bankruptcy legislation. On its own, the Wilmington, Del., company became one of the biggest corporate campaign contributors, giving mostly to Republicans, who were the main supporters of bankruptcy legislation. MBNA also was one of the coalition's most active members; its lobbyist, James Smith, chairman of the Smith-Free Group, which also represented Visa and MasterCard, was among the bankruptcy law campaigners who worked the closest with Mr. Tassey on the coalition.
Mr. Tassey headed the campaign on the ground and in the halls of Congress with a meticulous strategy. The AFSA hired George Wallace, a lawyer and bankruptcy expert, who wrote a report that could serve as a model for bankruptcy legislation and was paid $100,000 in lobbying fees in 1997. That year Mr. Tassey gave the report to then-Rep. Bill McCollum, a Republican from Florida. It was no random shot - Mr. Tassey had recently hired Tom Rosenkoetter, one of Mr. McCollum's top aides. The AFSA strategist also knew the lawmaker and supported him, having held, that he can recall, at least at least one fundraiser for him.
"They were shopping around their proposal. I was interested," says Mr. McCollum, now a partner at the law firm of Baker & Hostetler in Orlando.
Mr. Wallace's work became Rep. McCollum's framework for a new bill. Introduced in 1997, it was the first new piece of bankruptcy legislation since 1994 and included a means test, something creditors had been trying to add to bankruptcy laws since the 1960s. Historically, a filer's assets and liabilities determined their debts, if any. Now their income would also be an important criterion; if they earned above a certain amount, they would have to pay back some of the money they owed over several years.
Mr. Tassey lobbied hard for the bill. The means test was the hallmark of his initiatives. Mr. Wallace became the bill's public voice, coming the closest of any lobbyist to being a regular witness at congressional hearings on bankruptcy legislation. His pay for continuing to work on the bill grossed him an additional $660,000 over the next two years from the AFSA.
Mr. Tassey also had plenty of lobbying power working behind the scenes. He hired, among others, the firms of Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson & Hand; and Barbour Griffith & Rogers. Verner Liipfert had a reputation as the most powerful lobbying firm in Washington. Its "rock star" lobbyists, as they were affectionately known, included such powerhouse Democrats as George Mitchell, the former Senate Majority leader, Mr. Bentsen, and former Texas Gov. Ann Richards. The AFSA paid Verner Liipfert accordingly: a total of $1.2 million in 1997 and 1998. The draw at Barbour Griffith was the first name on the door, Mr. Barbour, the former Republican National Committee chairman. He pulled in $1.9 million over the same period.
"Haley is close to Lott," a former senior Senate staffer says of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. "Lott wasn't very enthusiastic about the bankruptcy bill. He thought the Democrats were trying to stack too many amendments on it. Barbour's job was to tell him to let the bill move on, while the Democrat lobbyists were supposed to tell their side to go easy with the amendments."
There is no telling what Mr. Tassey got or didn't get for the AFSA's money. Representative George Gekas took over the House bill. Passages were recast. Amendments and restrictions were added. The bill eventually grew to more than 400 pages. It was no longer the legislation Mr. Tassey advanced and Mr. Wallace wrote, but the basic concepts remained in place, as did the means test and other features. They'd assure that the coalition would, with a bill's passage, recover from debtors many times the cost of lobbying for the legislation.
Had the legislation not been drawn so broadly, it may not have done as well, getting wide support from both sides of the aisle in Congress. It sailed through the House and was a sure thing in the Senate, but a battle between the President Clinton and the creditors over the means test doomed it in the 105th Congress and the bill died in 1998. But it was just a temporary setback; the bill came back with few changes in the 106th Congress and this time cruised through both houses, only to suffer a pocket veto from the President in December.
But when George W. Bush became President, the same bill gained new momentum. President Bush, whose biggest campaign contributor was MBNA, was expected to sign bankruptcy legislation, and it became the first piece of business Congress got through both of its houses. On March 1 the House gave its bill a resounding 306-to-108 voice-vote approval. Two weeks later the Senate gave its measure an even healthier majority of 83-to-15. Among those voting for legislation was Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Quick passage seemed a certainty, but the two bills were not identical. Ordinarily, these difference could be ironed out in conference, but the Senate couldn't organize a conference for the bankruptcy bills - or any bills for that matter - because it needed to pick a leader from the majority, and with the upper house divided 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, there wasn't one. One option was to accept either the House or Senate versions, but the differences appear too big to bypass conference. A primary stumbling block was a disagreement over the amount of protection a bankruptcy filer's home would have in the law. Both bills have provisions for some limitations, but five states - Texas, Florida, Kansas, Iowa, South Dakota - shield homes from creditors without restriction. Some of those states' representatives are taking a hard line on restrictions and could possibly scuttle the legislation, maybe through filibuster. Leaving the exemptions to the states might easily save the bill, but some reform experts say that would be a big mistake.
"We're not talking about a lot of money," says Mr. Williamson, the former commission chairman. "But it's the single most important symbol for bankruptcy reform. Unless there is a cap on the amount of home assets that can be protected, it will undermine the fairness of the entire legislation."
Mr. Tassey's clients have no big stake in the issue. Homes are not bought with credit cards or sold to pay off credit card debt. But he is clearly bothered by the way the issue is gumming up the works. He almost sounds pleading when he says what his message would be to any conference: "Please don't let the bill go down over this. Work it out."
Some critics say Mr. Tassey and his clients might be better off if the bill does go down in flames.
"It's a tangled mess," says Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor and critic of the legislation. "It says one thing on one page and something else on another. You're going to have creditors picking each other's pockets, and the power will go to the more aggressive or subprime creditors. Then you have the auto lenders. They're the real stealth creditors. They moved ahead of everybody. If a bill is passed, Congress will be back at it again to correct all the things they did wrong."
Though Mr. Tassey sees Ms. Warren as his exact opposite, he fully agrees that the current bills, like all the bankruptcy measures of the past few decades, won't be the end of bankruptcy reform.
"It's war," he says.