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Banking on Barney Frank

Consumer advocates who cheered when Frank took over the powerful House Financial Services Committee now gripe that he's less than a corporate scourge.

| Wed Apr. 16, 2008 2:00 AM EDT

The reality has been something less dramatic. Frank does indeed have strong liberal credentials, particularly on social issues. He backs legislation to decriminalize pot smoking and voted against the 2002 resolution authorizing the Iraq War. His support for consumer legislation has also been strong. Back in 2001, he even tried to re-regulate cable TV rates. But since taking over as chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, he's been nothing but pragmatic, which hasn't come as much of a surprise to those in the finance world. Floyd Stoner, a longtime lobbyist with the American Bankers Association, says, "We had worked closely with Chairman Frank when he was the ranking member and his track record there was as a legislator who worked well across the aisle." As for Frank's reputation as a combative liberal, Stoner says that Frank is "a liberal who understands markets."

Frank's working relationship with the industry he regulates, in fact, tends to frustrate the consumer advocates who nonetheless support him. Few would talk on the record about him, but the consensus among them is that Frank is a "vote counter." Advocates say that he is a chairman who doesn't waste a lot of time pushing for initiatives he knows he doesn't have the votes for. As a result, the legislation coming from his committee is far less consumer friendly than might be expected from someone with such a liberal reputation.

Take the credit card legislation he cosponsored that is currently pending in the House, the so-called Credit Card Holders' Bill of Rights. Credit cards are among the most profitable segments of the banking industry, in part because the issuers are able to essentially change the terms of the contracts whenever they choose. Make your car payment late one month, for example, and you could see all your credit cards jacked up to 36 percent interest. These sorts of abuses are rampant in the industry, yet the House bill offers only modest solutions, such as requiring credit card issuers to send out bills at least 25 days before they're due, rather than 14, or banning companies from changing the interest rate retroactively, as well as more disclosure rules for the already complex credit card contracts.

Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates (NACA), laments, "We're living in a country in an incredible debt crisis, and all they can come up with is some new disclosure rules?" Consumer groups would like to see more stringent measures, such as a ban on over-the-limit fees on purchases that the card issuer still allows to go forward, and many more restrictions on subprime cards that have low limits but very high fees.

Consumer advocates were particularly upset with Frank over the anti-predatory-lending bill passed by the House in November. The bill came out of Frank's committee, and while it purported to address some of the abuses in the subprime mortgage industry that have led to the current crisis, a whole litany of consumer groups ended up opposing the legislation because they said it would end up leaving consumers worse off than if Congress did nothing at all. The bill, they argued, provided weak federal remedies for people whose homes were going into foreclosure because of predatory lending, while at the same time invalidating much stronger state consumer protection laws, like those in North Carolina, which started to deal with predatory lending long before the subprime debacle forced Congress to jump on the bandwagon.

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