During recent congressional debates over bankruptcy reform, Visa U.S.A. chief economist Thomas A. Layman has become a fixture in Capitol Hill hearing rooms.

The former Crocker Bank economist preaches a simple message: The government should require people to repay their debts unless they truly cannot afford it.

"Under today's code, people are receiving more relief than they need," Mr. Layman said. "That has been shown by numerous research projects. People are not even being asked now to substantiate their needs."

Though he has no background in lobbying, Mr. Layman is spearheading the card association's push to get the House to adopt Rep. George W. Gekas' reform bill. The measure would use a formula based on income and cost-of- living data to determine whether a bankrupt person should be required to repay at least a portion of unsecured debt.

The House Judiciary Committee approved the measure Thursday, despite Democrats' efforts to kill it. The Senate Judiciary Committee has twice postponed a vote on a similar bill in order to deal with other pending legislation.

Mr. Layman's most potent weapon has been a series of studies financed by the card industry that purport to show that at least 15% of people who shed their debts under Chapter 7 of the bankruptcy code could have afforded to repay at least one-fifth of their unsecured credit.

The studies have come under bruising attacks from the General Accounting Office and consumer advocates, who have questioned the studies' methodology and their reliance on income data submitted to the court by bankrupt debtors.

Mr. Layman dismissed the criticisms, saying any single study can be slammed for using a specific methodology. But the industry has used four different methodologies and consistently come to the same conclusion: Some debtors can afford to partly repay unsecured creditors.

"No matter what method or which year we looked at, the results are the same," he said. "About 15% get more relief than they need."

Flying in from San Francisco at least twice a month, Mr. Layman has earned more than 125,000 frequent-flier miles on United Airlines and even knows most of the crews that staff the cross-country flights.

He typically flies in on a Monday night and returns to California Thursday afternoon. In between, he tries to meet with lawmakers and lobbyists. For instance, on a recent trip, he helped arrange a meeting between Visa U.S.A. president Carl Pascarella and Republican Sens. Charles E. Grassley and Jeff Sessions.

"This is the best of both worlds," he said. "I live in the most beautiful city in the world, but I get a chance to come here and work on public policy."

Washington is not new territory for Mr. Layman. He interned at the International Monetary Fund in 1974 and was director for Asia at the Institute of International Finance from 1987 to 1990. The institute was established by 200 large, international banks to rate economic conditions in developing countries.

"What attracted me was that I was basically representing all those banks indirectly," he said. "I enabled them to decide whether to make investments."

He joined Visa International in 1990 as manager of country risk. A year later he was made manager of business research and reporting at Visa U.S.A. He became chief economist in 1996, the same year a federal panel began its congressionally mandated review of the bankruptcy code. This panel's work is the foundation for the legislation now being considered.

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