Great stimulus plan? Reform credit card industry

March 9, 2009


By Anna Eshoo

San Jose Mercury News

February 28, 2009
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Withall the efforts under way to stimulate our economy, restore ournation's financial institutions and revive the credit markets, manyAmericans are understandably skeptical about whether these steps willprovide their families meaningful relief.

But there is somethingCongress can do immediately for the average consumer that will bringimmediate results, put dollars back into the economy, and ease manyAmericans' worries: cap interest rates on credit cards and reform thecredit card industry.

While news reports are filled with storiesof banks holding massive amounts of bad debt and a mountain of dubioushome loans, consumers have seen their credit card payments skyrocket,not because they've been spending too much or missing payments, butbecause credit card companies have been trying to recoup their otherlosses with sudden and sharp increases in interest rates and confusingrepayment schedules that maximize the debt owed by their customers.

Good,stable credit card customers who have been paying their debts have seenthe interest rates on their existing balances triple and even quadruple- without warning and without justification. As a result, people whohave been trying to pay off their credit cards find themselves fallingbehind faster and faster through no fault of their own. Credit carddefaults are nearing record highs and the average household carriesover $10,000 in credit card debt.

As Congress continues to seek ways to stimulate the economy, credit card reform must be a central element of these efforts.

Weshould prohibit banks from increasing interest rates on current creditcard debt. When you're in a hole, the first rule is to stop digging.Adding to credit card debt by arbitrarily increasing interest ratesdoes nothing to help consumers or the economy. It only makes theproblem worse.

We also can bring about an end to Americanconsumers' recent legacy of debt by putting a permanent ceiling oncredit card interest rates. The limit can be set so that it adjustsaccording to fluctuations in the economy, but it's time to end thelong-standing practice of usurious credit card interest rates bybanning those that far exceed the lending rates of other loan products.

Thenew Congress should pass the Credit Cardholders' Bill of Rightslegislation that I am co-sponsoring. It provides permanent protectionto the average American consumer. It includes some of the stepsoutlined here, as well as other meaningful reforms such as:

  • Ending the practice of penalizing cardholders who pay on time.
  • Prohibiting credit card companies from shifting allocation of consumer payments to maximize interest rates.
  • Requiring straightforward, easy-to-understand payment schedules, terms and conditions.
  • Preventing the absurd practice of issuing credit cards to minors.

    Creditcard reform and interest rate relief will provide an economic stimulusby helping the average consumer right now. It would mean directassistance to consumers by reducing their liabilities and allowing themto spend again.

    More important, these reforms can lift the burdenof debt and ease the worries that keep Americans awake at night,wondering how they can make ends meet. Congress has already takenurgent steps to bail out our financial system, automakers and stategovernments. It's time to throw a life preserver to families strugglingto tread water in the rising tide of consumer debt.

    DemocraticU.S. Rep. Anna G. Eschool represents California"s 14th congressionaldistrict, encompassing much of Silicon Valley. She wrote this articlefor the Mercury News.