Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

March 26, 2009


Senator Bernie Sanders - In the midst of this financial disaster, one of the great frustrations that I hear from my constituents is that while taxpayers are spending hundreds of billions bailing out major financial institutions, and while these big banks are getting near-zero interest rate loans from the Fed, these very same financial institutions are now charging Americans 20 percent or 30 percent interest rates on their credit cards. In fact, one-third of all credit card holders in this country are now paying interest rates above 20 percent and as high as 41 percent – more than double what they paid in interest in 1990. Recently, some major institutions such as Bank of America have informed responsible cardholders that their interest rates would be doubled to as high as 28 percent, without explaining why the increase was taking place.

At a time when many Americans in the collapsing middle class use credit cards for groceries, gas and college expenses, what Wall Street and credit card companies are doing is not much different from what gangsters and loan sharks do when they make predatory loans. While the bankers wear three-piece suits and don't break the knee caps of those who can't pay back, they are still destroying people's lives.

The Bible has a term for this practice. It's called usury. And in The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri's epic poem, there was a special place reserved in the Seventh Circle of Hell for sinners who charged people usurious interest rates.

Today, we don't need the hellfire and pitch forks, we don't need the rivers of boiling blood, but we do need a national usury law.

We need a national law because state laws no longer work. States used to protect consumers from predatory lenders, but strong state usury laws were obliterated by a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court decision. Justices allowed national banks to charge whatever interest rate they wanted if they moved to a state without an interest rate cap like South Dakota or Delaware.

That is why I have introduced legislation to require any lender in this country to cap all interest rates on consumer loans at 15 percent, including credit cards. Why did I select 15 percent as the appropriate rate to deal with the usury which is going on in this country? The reason is that 15 percent is the maximum that Congress imposed on credit union loans almost 30 years ago when it amended the Federal Credit Union Act. And that approach has worked. Under current law, credit unions are allowed to charge higher interest rates only if their regulator, the National Credit Union Administration, determines that it is necessary to maintain the safety and soundness of these institutions. Right now, while most credit unions charge lower rates, the NCUA allows credit unions to charge an interest rate as high as 18 percent.

Unlike their counterparts at the big banks, credit unions are not lining up for hundreds of billions in bailouts. In fact, they're doing quite well. As Chris Collver, legislative and regulatory analyst for the California Credit Union League recently stated; "It hasn't been an issue. Credit unions are still able to thrive." In my view, if these rules have worked well for credit unions for decades they can work for all financial institutions.

In 1991 former Senator Al D'Amato offered an amendment to cap credit card interest rates at 14 percent. The amendment passed the Senate by a vote of 74-19, but never became law. Now is the time to return to that debate.


Anonymous Mairead said...

That's an example of legislation that looks good on the surface, but is badly flawed in fact.

Currently, my credit union pays 1.4% on my IRA money. But they charge more than 9% on loans. That's a 600% disparity, charged by an institution that allegedly exists to serve the needs of its thousands of owner-members, not fill the pockets of a wealthy few.

But if a 600% disparity isn't usury, then the term has no meaning.

Interest rates should be bound together, incoming with outgoing. If a bank wants to pay only a pittance, then it should only be able to charge a pittance. A 300% disparity might be okay during 'difficult' times, but anything more is simple rapaciousness.

How can Sanders, an alleged socialist, not know that?

March 26, 2009 6:24 PM  

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