We're Screwed on Everything From Health Care to the Economy If the Dems Don't Shape Up
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Nevertheless, the redoubtable Bernie Sanders of Vermont demanded a vote on his bill -- an interest-rate cap of 15 percent.
"When banks are charging 30 percent interest rates, they are not making credit available," Sanders said. "They are engaged in loan sharking." Sanders lost, 33 to 60. Twenty-one Democrats voted with the sharks. Senators Carper, Cantwell, Byrd, Bingaman, Bayh, Baucus, Akaka, Warner, Tester, Stabenow, Specter, Shaheen, Pryor, Ben Nelson, Bill Nelson, Murray, Lincoln, Landrieu, Kaufman, Johnson, Hagan.
The scandal of "payday" lending is being confronted by numerous state legislatures, but the issue stalled out in Congress. The industry pursued a race-based lobbying strategy that targeted black and Hispanic representatives with this pitch -- poor people need these loans; don't mess with them. Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois proposed a bill that usurers found acceptable -- an interest rate cap of 390 percent.
Standing With the Sharks
Perhaps the most revealing moment for Democratic timidity was the Senate roll call to authorize bankruptcy judges to intervene on home foreclosures and reduce the burden for failing homeowners. If the bankers refused to make a deal, the debtors could take them into bankruptcy court and hope for better terms. This single reform would shift the balance of power modestly from creditors to debtors and save at least 1.5 million families from foreclosure, reformers estimated. The measure passed easily in the House, but was defeated by the Senate.
Bankruptcy reform lost because twelve Democrats joined the Republicans to vote for bankers and against embattled families. Senators Baucus, Bennet, Byrd, Carper, Dorgan, Johnson, Landrieu, Lincoln, Ben Nelson, Pryor, Specter, Tester.
Dick Durbin could not conceal the bitter aftertaste. He told a hometown radio interviewer: "Hard to believe in a time when we're facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created -- they are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And frankly, they own the place."
Durbin's disappointment may have included the former Illinois senator whom he had championed for president. Barack Obama took a walk on reform. Last year as a candidate, Obama declined to support the bankruptcy provision for the financial-bailout legislation, but he promised reform groups he would support it if elected. The White House wouldn't let reformers include it in the stimulus package or in Obama's first budget. The White House suggested the issue could proceed as a stand-alone measure (guaranteed to fail). On this important reform, the president stands with the sharks.
The Democratic Party ignores its left-liberal-progressive base with some regularity because it knows it can. Politicians understand they will suffer no consequences afterward. The galaxy of mediating organizations, including organized labor, that surrounds and supports the party may stomp and holler, but they do not attempt any retribution that might alter their relationship with power. Reform organizations will not withdraw their support, either money or rank-and-file voters. Nor will they seek to punish any of the wayward Democrats who regularly vote against them with opposition at the next election. The "white hat" reformers are Washington insiders themselves, with a seat at the table and influence on the substance of the party's agenda. They do not want to put their status at risk. Politicians know this from long experience. So do the reformers.
The warped dynamics of the Democratic Party may have sufficed when the GOP was ascendant and the goal was restoring a Democratic majority. But now the majority party resembles a dysfunctional family, badly in need of outside intervention. I say this with sympathy, having known and admired many of the reform activists for many years. Some of them are suffering from a political version of the Stockholm syndrome. Their good intentions are brutally compromised by identifying with the limited imagination and nerve of the Democratic Party.