WASHINGTON Sen. Charles Schumer is one of the few members of the often polarized Senate Banking and Judiciary committees who can make both industry and community groups happy.
In just one 24-hour period last week, the liberal New York Democrat got industry plaudits for teaming up with the conservative Republican chairmen of each panel to move forward two bills highly sought by financial services companies bankruptcy reform and securities fees reduction.
Then this week, Sen. Schumer put his arms around Rev. Jesse Jackson and railed against the dangers of subprime and predatory lending at the annual National Community Reinvestment Coalition conference here.
We need him as a counterbalance to the likes of Senate Banking Chairman Phil Gramm, was the enthusiastic introduction Sen. Schumer received at the event from Lee Beaulac, a senior vice president for housing and economic development at Rural Opportunities, a community group based in Rochester, N.Y.
Are these examples of a politician expert at being a chameleon, of a successful bipartisan lawmaker, or both?
If I could have a theme of legislative work this year, it has to be bipartisan, Sen. Schumer said in an interview. The message of the election to Washington was clear: if you two parties cant work together, we dont want you to work at all.
So with the Senate equally split between 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats, and Vice President Cheney on hand to break ties, we have to work together, and I prefer it that way, Sen. Schumer said last week, fresh from his two victories on bankruptcy reform and securities fees.
Bankruptcy legislation would not be on the fast track in the Senate today, Sen. Schumer said, if it was not for a compromise he reached last week with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch to defuse the political charge of his pet amendment one that would have barred abortion clinic attackers from filing for bankruptcy to escape court penalties. Instead of directing the amendment just at anti-abortion activists, Sen. Schumer broadened it to prohibit people convicted of any type of violence from using the bankruptcy code to shield themselves from the law.
Speaking from his office as he tucked into a late lunch of pasta on a tray from the Senate cafeteria, Sen. Schumer reminded bankers that he had helped block their much-sought-after bankruptcy reform bill last year because the amendment targeting anti-abortion activists was removed.
When bankers would call me up and say, please be for the bill, I would say, get your wife to call me. Their wives never did, Sen. Schumer said.
This time around, though, he and other Democrats who opposed the bill last year dont have President Clintons veto threat serving as a backstop.
What stopped it last year was then-President Clintons opposition, Sen. Schumer said. President Bush is for it, so the bill is going to pass.
The odds are much longer for legislating against abusive lending practices, with lawmakers of both political stripes most notably Sen. Gramm adamant that the term predatory lending must be defined before Congress writes laws to curb it.
That didnt stop Sen. Schumer on Thursday from trying to amend the bankruptcy overhaul package with an anti-predatory-lending provision, and making plans to introduce legislation next week that would toughen the definition of high-cost loans.
What we need is comprehensive legislation to stop predatory lending once and for all, Sen. Schumer said in a speech to the NCRC on Wednesday.
And being a longtime advocate of New Yorks powerful securities industry did not stop him from offering an amendment to the bankruptcy bill intended to deter securities firms from purchasing high-cost loans from bankrupt originators. The provision would make the purchasers of such loans liable if the loans are found to violate existing fair lending laws.
Next week he plans to reintroduce legislation that would ban prepayment penalties, mandatory credit insurance, and the financing of points and fees. Similar legislation stalled last year.
Modeled after a tough anti-predatory-lending law that North Carolina enacted in 1999, the bill would change the thresholds of the Home Ownership Equity and Protection Act, which uses rates and fees to define high-cost loans, and trigger additional reporting requirements. Under the act, high-cost loans are those that have an annual percentage rate that is 10 points higher than Treasury securities with comparable maturities or customer-paid points and fees that exceed 8% of the loan amount.
With his legislation, Sen. Schumer would change the threshold to interest rates 8% higher than the one-year Treasury bond rate and would lower the customer-paid points and fees threshold to 4%.
In keeping with his bipartisan theme, though, Sen. Schumer also is working with banks on a study of abusive lending practices that he expects will clear banks names. We cant tell you about it now, but in New York weve come to some interesting conclusions on predatory lending as to who is to blame and to solve it, the Senator said cryptically. The traditional blame-the-banks logic doesnt really apply as much as people thought. And thats all Im saying right now.
Sen. Schumer also continues to side with banks on other topics, such as joining in on criticism of regulators rules governing merchant banking and a related capital proposal.
As long as people dont use insured dollars, they can do what they want. Thats been my basic watchword, he said. When Ive had my disagreements with the banking community, its because I think insured dollars put some special onuses and responsibilities on the institutions.