The Senate’s moral bankruptcy

The pending bankruptcy bill reads like a wish list for the credit card industry -- and couldn't be nastier to the average American consumer.

Topics: U.S. Senate,

U.S. senators are about to pass a bankruptcy bill so hostile to ordinary American families that it could only have come about in a place as corrupt, cynical and unmoored from reality as Washington, D.C.

In a normal world, those elected to represent the interests of the people would have fought for bankruptcy legislation that would, well, represent the interests of the people. But not in Beltway Bizarroland. Instead of cracking down on predatory lending practices, closing loopholes that favor the wealthy, and strengthening the safety net for working people, single mothers and elderly Americans struggling to recover from a financial setback, the Senate put together a nasty little bill that reads like a credit industry wish list. Rubbing salt in the wound, Sen. Charles Grassley, the bill’s chief sponsor, labeled it the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 — even though it does nothing to prevent bankruptcy abuse or protect consumers.

So what does the bill do? It makes it harder for average people to file for bankruptcy protection; it makes it easier for landlords to evict a bankrupt tenant; it endangers child-support payments by giving a wider array of creditors a shot at post-bankruptcy income; it allows millionaires to shield an unlimited amount of equity in homes and asset-protection trusts; it makes it more difficult for small businesses to reorganize while opening new loopholes for the Enrons of the world; it allows creditors to provide misleading information; and it does nothing to rein in lending abuses that frequently turn manageable debt into unmanageable crises. Even in failure, ordinary Americans do not get a level playing field.

Credit card companies have been feverishly lobbying for this legislation for nearly a decade — and it looks like the $34 million the finance and credit industries have contributed to political campaigns since 1996 is finally about to pay off. On Tuesday, the cloture vote on the bill was 69 to 31. The House passed similar legislation last year, and GOP leaders are hoping to bypass the conference committee deadlocks that have derailed similar measures in the past and to get the bill on President Bush’s desk in short order. The president, well aware that credit card giant MBNA is one of the Republican Party’s largest donors, has promised to sign the bill as soon as someone hands him a pen.



Make no mistake, the inequitable nature of the bill — bending over backward to help the credit card industry while sticking it to American working people who fall on hard times — is no accident. Time and again over the last week, the Senate shot down amendments that would have made the bill a bit less mean-spirited. They denied proposals that would have made it easier for military veterans, the sick and the elderly to qualify for bankruptcy protection. They even rejected an amendment that would have put a 30 percent ceiling on the interest rates credit card companies can charge. Thirty percent — that’s more than Paulie Walnuts charges. But 74 U.S. senators — including John Kerry, Harry Reid, Barack Obama and Dick Durbin — clearly thought that wasn’t high enough. Quick, somebody send those guys a Bible bookmarked to Deuteronomy 23:19: “Thou shalt not lend upon usury to thy brother.”

For years, credit card companies have been claiming that tougher laws are needed to rein in high-flying customers using bankruptcy to game the system. But the truth is that the vast majority of people who file for bankruptcy are middle-class folks who can’t pay their bills because they’ve lost their jobs or been hit with high medical bills or gone through a divorce.

Indeed, a recent study by Harvard University found that half of last year’s 1.6 million bankruptcies were the result of crushing medical bills. Put another way: Every 30 seconds, someone in this country files for bankruptcy in the wake of a serious illness. How’s that for a shocking stat? Here’s another: Three-quarters of the so-called medically bankrupt had health insurance. It just wasn’t enough to cover the dramatic rise in healthcare costs.

But instead of adapting to this harsh new reality, where hard-working, college-educated, middle-class folks can be financially destroyed by a sudden illness, the Senate is about to approve a one-size-fits-all law that treats a family man who has sunk into debt because of a heart attack the same as a con artist who maxes out his MasterCard, then refuses to pay up.

Worst of all, the bill does absolutely nothing to protect consumers from the aggressive tactics credit card companies have devised in recent years — tactics that have proven hugely profitable. Along with sending out over 5 billion solicitations a year, they are constantly developing new ways to stick it to the people they’ve already lured into the tent. For instance, companies now routinely jack up a cardholder’s interest rate when their payment is late — and, presto, a “fixed” 7 percent APR is suddenly transformed into a cash-gobbling 30 percent loan.

There has also been an explosion in the fees that credit card companies charge: late fees, balance transfer fees, cash-advance fees, over-the-limit fees. Such fees bring in billions and are partly responsible for the fact that, even as personal bankruptcies in America have steadily increased, so have the profits of credit card companies — which reached a whopping $30 billion last year.

So tell me again: Just who is gaming the system?

It’s one thing for credit card companies to exact their pound of flesh even as their profits soar. But shouldn’t we hold our elected officials to a higher standard? The bankruptcy bill is morally bankrupt. And so is any senator who votes for it.

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>