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Credit Card Industry Steps Up Lobbying

The nation’s credit card industry is bankrolling a massive lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill to ensure banks, retailers and credit card companies continue to be governed by a single set of national regulations.

Relying on a new lobbying coalition, a set of pricey lobbyists and an innovative tactic, the credit industry hopes to renew a law that lets it avoid the hassle of 50 separate sets of state-imposed regulations on the industry.

The law, added to the Fair Credit Reporting Act in 1996, will sunset at the end of the year.

If it expires, banks, credit bureaus, retailers and other financial service organizations would suffer ‘very serious” consequences because state regulators would replace the federal government in overseeing credit information sharing, said Ken Clayton, of the American Bankers Association, the nation’s largest banking trade organization.

The Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee plans to hold the final two of six hearings on the issue next week before introducing a bill after the August recess. The House Financial Services Committee plans to mark up the legislation today.

The measure is ‘job No. 1 of the committee,” said Scott Duncan, a spokesman for the House panel.

Meanwhile, the credit industry has been aggressively urging Congress to reauthorize federal control of industry regulations.

Citigroup, TransUnion and Capitol One have spent thousands of dollars flying key Congressional aides to a handful of conferences around the country to bring them up to speed on the issue.

More than 10 staff members attended each conference, according to disclosure forms filed with Congress, most of which were aides working for lawmakers on the Financial Services and Banking committees.

‘It’s a critical issue for our company and our industry,” said TransUnion spokesman Jeffrey Junkas. About 20 staffers attended TransUnion’s late-February symposium in Crum Lynne, Pa., costing the company about $650 a person, according to disclosure forms.

After introductory speeches and a tour of the facility, the staffers were treated to three panels: ‘Impact of FCRA Preemption Loss on Risk Assessment,” ‘Impact of FCRA Preemption Loss on Consumer Credit” and ‘Impact of FCRA Preemption Loss on new applications of consumer report information,” according to a symposium agenda.

Citigroup spent about $1,500 a pop to send Hill staffers to its conference, which took place at the end of January in The Lakes, Nev. The three-day tour included sessions ranging from an ‘Overview of Citi Cards and Role of Card Industry in Economy” to the ‘Importance of the Fair Credit Reporting Act.”

Perhaps the most posh of the three was a conference sponsored by Capital One in early March at the Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa in St. Pete Beach, Fla.

Panelists included Lisa McGreevy of the Financial Services Roundtable, Floyd Stoner of the American Bankers Association and a group of Capital One executives.

Aside from the travel, the credit industry has pumped thousands of dollars into Members’ re-election accounts and signed up a team of new lobbyists.

TransUnion, for example, hired Sidley Austin Brown and Wood to pick up ‘some additional feet on the street,” according to Junkas.

The industry also formed a lobbying alliance, the Partnership to Protect Consumer Credit, which has recruited its own team of well-connected lobbyists. The partnership signed up Ed Gillespie, who has since stopped lobbying to prepare for becoming Republican National Committee chairman. The account will be taken over by other lobbyists from his firm, Quinn, Gillespie and Associates.

Two other lobbying shops — Williams and Jensen and Griffin, Johnson, Madigan, Peck, Boland, Dover & Stewart — are also on the organization’s payroll.

Partnership members include retailers, small businesses, mortgage lenders, investment and banking firms, and credit card companies, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Capital One, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase and MasterCard.

Meanwhile, the Financial Services Roundtable, a national association that represents the nation’s largest financial services companies, has been a vocal supporter of extending the national standards.

At a press conference last week, the Roundtable released a report from the Perryman Group, a Texas-based consulting firm, that says the gross domestic product could drop by 2 percent if the states’ pre-emption sunsets.

Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), the author of the House bill that will be marked up today, compared the national credit system to the national interstate system.

‘Just like we don’t want to put traffic lights on our interstate [highway] system,” Bachus said, ‘we want to do the same for credit.”

But some organizations and lawmakers do not agree, and a handful of groups are fighting just as vehemently to allow states to adopt their own standards for sharing credit information.

Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America, said his organization’s ‘most important effort is to try to convince Members to support strong consumer protections.”

He added that although the act includes ‘important new consumer protections,” the CFA does not believe they are sufficient to permanently thwart state regulations.

Brobeck described a ‘coalition effort” by his organization and members to lobby Congress to add additional consumer protections and not permanently grant control of credit information to the federal government.

Chris Hoofnagle of the Electronic Privacy Information Center said that although his organization does not lobby, there are many avenues to prevent this legislation from passing.

He noted that there are not many legislative days left this year, and the few that remain could easily become occupied with another issue.

Hoofnagle added that ‘the Senate clearly is not going to move that quickly.”

If Congress does not pass the reauthorization included in the Bachus bill, Hoofnagle said, the pre-emption will end ‘and the states will experiment.”

Hoofnagle said the current pre-emption handcuffs state legislatures and concentrates power in Washington.

‘There needs to be structural changes,” Hoofnagle argued, and states have historically served as successful testing grounds.

Opponents also claim the Bachus bill does not fix problems with the Fair Credit Reporting Act that allow mistakes in consumers’ reports, does not give consumers adequate rights to clear up errors, does not sufficiently deter identity theft and does not protect medical privacy.

But supporters maintain that the national standards allow more people to get credit, thereby stimulating the economy.

‘The national uniform credit reporting system has lowered costs and increased choice and convenience for American consumers,” Bachus said in a statement shortly after the bill was introduced. ‘But by far the most striking result of our national credit reporting system is the dramatically increased availability of credit — what has been called the democratization of credit.”

In addition to permanently extending the states’ pre-emption, the Bachus bill backers say their legislation would help consumers detect and correct fraudulent information, increase consumer awareness of their rights if they fall victim to fraud or identity theft, improve accuracy by cracking down on reintroducing wrong information, give consumers the right to obtain their credit information and simplify consumers’ ability to limit unsolicited credit offers.

Timothy Muris, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, said in testimony before the House Financial Services Committee earlier this month that ‘preliminary research indicates that allowing the national standards to expire could have deleterious effects for consumers.”

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