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House approves 'Credit Card Holders' Bill of Rights'

Friday, May 1, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

WASHINGTON — Riding a crest of populist anger, the House on Thursday approved a bill to restrict credit card practices and eliminate sudden increases in interest rates and late fees that have entangled millions of consumers.

The legislation passed by a bipartisan vote of 357-70 following lobbying by President Barack Obama and members of his administration.

The measure would prohibit so-called double-cycle billing and retroactive rate hikes and would prevent companies from giving credit cards to anyone under 18.

If they become law, the new measures won't take effect for a year, except for a requirement that customers get 45 days' notice before their interest rates are increased. That would take effect in 90 days.

Similar legislation is before the Senate, where its prospects appear promising.

Consumer advocates and some Democrats have unsuccessfully sought for years to bring new rules to the industry.

"A big vote in the House will create an even bigger momentum as it goes to the Senate," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters.

Supporters want to get a final congressional package to Obama's desk by the Memorial Day holiday.

Before approving the bill, dubbed the Credit Card Holders' Bill of Rights, the House adopted a series of amendments — some of which were pushed by the White House — that amplified the restrictions on industry practices.

The House measure incorporates Federal Reserve regulations due to take effect in July 2010 but goes further by adding restrictions for credit cards for college students.

Double-cycle billing eliminates the interest-free period for consumers who move from paying the full balance monthly to carrying a balance.

Opponents tried vainly on the House floor to temper a fast-moving bill with amendments that would have given credit card issuers some openings to raise rates within the proposed restraints.

"We shouldn't take credit opportunities away," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas. "I just want consumers to have choices. I want there to be a competitive marketplace."

Hensarling and other Republican opponents endorsed the bill's requirements for clearer disclosure in the fine print of credit card agreements. But they said the legislation overall could prompt lenders to restrict credit in an already tight market to compensate for the new requirements.

That's the leading argument made by banking industry executives against the legislation.

Supporters of the bill also drew on the economic crisis to make their case.

"Americans deserve a fair shake," said Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo. The credit card industry "has taken advantage of millions of vulnerable Americans."

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., the bill's chief sponsor, said the changes were needed because "many people are turning to their credit cards because they have lost their jobs."

Boosters of the bill are tapping into rising public anger over corporate excesses and the conduct of banks and other companies receiving billions of dollars in taxpayer money.

"At a time when millions of families continue to struggle to make ends meet, additional safeguards are needed to ensure consumers are not being saddled by questionable industry practices," the powerful AARP, the lobbying group representing seniors, said in a statement supporting the bill.

Obama met at the White House last week with executives of the credit card industry and made clear he wants to sign a bill into law. He reaffirmed it as a priority at his prime-time news conference Wednesday evening, saying legislation was a must to protect consumers from "abusive fees and penalties."

Earlier Wednesday, Maloney and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner met with representatives of consumer and civil rights groups to discuss the credit card overhaul.

The administration is advocating stricter practices that could crimp banks' revenue at the same time the government is shoring up the financial institutions with hundreds of billions of dollars in bailout aid.

The credit card changes could cost the banking industry more than $10 billion a year in interest payments, according to a study by the law firm Morrison & Foerster.

Amid the recession and rising job losses, consumers — even those with strong credit records — have been defaulting at high levels on their credit cards. Banks already battered by the mortgage and credit crises have been bleeding tens of billions in red ink from the losses.

U.S. credit card debt has jumped 25 percent in the past 10 years, reaching $963 billion in January, according to figures from the White House. The average outstanding credit card debt for households that have a card was $10,679 at the end of 2008, according to CreditCard.com, an online market.


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Comments

John Schultz May 1, 2009 | 10:34 a.m.

I would be curious to know how many people that this bill is supposed to "help" were in bad financial straits to start with and/or chose a fly-by-night credit card company? I have never had a massive interest hike because I usually pay my bill on time and in full. The couple of times that the payment has arrived a day late, I have been able to call my credit card company and have it removed after asking nicely, with no bumps in my interest rate. I have never been with a company that did double-cycle billing or charged an annual fee for the card. Some credit card companies have probably brought this upon themselves by treating their customers less than respectably, but I have a strong hunch that there is a significant fraction of credit card users who have themselves to blame for the situation they are in.

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