The Senate sticks one to the bankers

The credit card "bill of rights" passes with a 90-5 vote. The banking industry isn't amused.

Published May 19, 2009 6:28PM (EDT)

If the U.S. Senate's overwhelming 90-5 vote in favor of a credit card reform bill proves anything, it could be that when President Obama decides to really lobby for something, either legislators will be eager to fall in line, or the measure was bound to pass by a huge majority anyway. The president made his endorsement of credit card reform clear, and now that both the Senate and House have passed versions of the bill, it could become law by Memorial Day. It's a clear win for the White House, but the size of the vote doesn't make it look like Obama was forced to twist any arms.

The bill doesn't include a hard 15 percent cap on credit card interest rates, as proposed by Bernie Sanders, and it doesn't include a provision that would make it easier for merchants to offer discounts to customers who do not use credit cards, but it does represent some progress nonetheless.

Customers will have to be more than 60 days behind on payments before a credit card company can raise rates, and issuers will be required to lower the rates to their original level if the customer pays the minimum balance on time for the next six months.

Make no mistake -- this will take a bite out of bank profits. As the New York Times observed this morning, the credit card companies make most of their money from late fees and interest rate charges.

For instance, Mr. Hammer said the amount of money generated by penalty fees like late charges and exceeding credit limits had increased by about $1 billion annually in recent years, and should top $20 billion this year.

Regulations passed by the Federal Reserve in December to curb unexpected interest charges would cost issuers about $12 billion a year in lost fees and income, according to industry calculations. The legislation before Congress would build on the Fed rules and would further squeeze banks' revenue when they are being hit with a high rate of credit card charge-offs....

A 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office estimated that 70 percent of card issuers' revenue came from interest charges, and the portion from penalty rates appeared to be growing.

There is however, one potential roadblock before the bill becomes law. Bloomberg reports that Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., added an amendment to the bill that is absolutely unrelated to credit cards: the right to carry concealed weapons in national parks!

The Senate bill contains an unrelated gun provision, to allow visitors to national parks carry concealed weapons, which may become an issue when negotiations begin with the House. The measure is necessary to combat increased crime in the parks, said Senator Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican who offered the amendment.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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