The Common Good

Don't Let the Banks Buy Congress

In a frank admission a year ago, Senator Dick Durbin put it bluntly: "Frankly, the banks run this place." Perhaps they deserve to. After all, they pay enough for the privilege. Last year the finance industry contributed $500 million to political campaigns: that's $1.4 million dollars a day to grease the skids of American democracy; nearly $1 million per member of Congress.

For that kind of money, they not only run the place, they own it! Bought and paid for!

Have you ever known banks to be pointlessly generous? When was the last time that your bank gave you $100, let alone $1,000,000? (Or, if you are old enough to remember a more innocent time, even a toaster or an electric can opener?)

So what are the banks buying with such spectacular generosity?

What do you think?!

Deregulation.

Obscene profits.

Millions of dollars in executive compensation.

Credit card agreements so complicated and convoluted that you have no hope of reading them, let alone understanding what you read, along with late payment penalties and hidden fees.

The legal right to charge the poor interest at rates competitive with loan sharks (up to 1000% per year for 'payday lenders,' which loan to the desperate poor borrowing against upcoming paychecks).

The freedom to provide unsecured, predatory mortgages to people who have no hope of paying, first driving up the price you pay for your house, and then collapsing its value to the point that it makes financial sense just to walk way.

The opportunity to sell newly innovated, unregulated financial products to your pension fund, so that their profits and your losses destroy the nest egg which you depend on to support you in your old age.

And most of all, with their millions in political donations, the financial industry and Wall Street banks buy themselves a stupendous bailout, complete with a 'get out of jail free' card.

I don't need to belabor the point. You know what the banks bought with their bucks: they bought your members of Congress.

And they bought the right to squeeze you by the throat.

This is not an issue of blue vs. red or left vs. right; it is an issue of right vs. wrong. And many of our elected officials in Washington have lost their moral compass. Here is what we can do about it:

First, contact your Senators.

In December, the House voted 223-202, approving the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2009 (H.R. 4173), legislation opposed by the banking and finance lobby, but correcting many of the abuses which nearly imploded the U.S. economy in the fall of 2008. (Republican members of Congress unanimously opposed the bill.)

Now the Senate version -- the Restoring American Financial Stability Act -- is under debate on the Senate floor. It proposes to create a consumer financial protection agency to protect you from Wall Street speculation and deception, by overseeing the companies that provide credit cards, car loans, mortgages, and other financial products.

The banks and financial industry do not need to defeat the bill; all they need to do is to weaken its provisions. The most effective strategy is to offer an alternative, one that is all talk and no teeth, one with great safeguards but little authority to enforce them.

After the House vote, Edward Yingling, president of the American Bankers Association trade group, said: "Reform is needed, and ABA wants to work with the Congress and the Administration to enact that reform, but the House-passed bill contains provisions that have nothing to do with needed reform and which could make it very difficult for banks to effectively serve their consumer and business customers." These are the same people who just pillaged the economy -- who just got done sucking up your assets, home, and IRAs -- for their company profits and their executive bonuses. And now they offer to write the necessary reforms to prevent them from robbing you again. Yeah, right.

So contact your members of Congress, the Representatives who have already voted, and the Senators who are preparing to vote. Under the current electoral system, elected officials depend on two things to keep their jobs: your vote and corporate donations. Let them know that they can have only one. Let them choose which it will be. Over the next six months the banking and finance lobby will remember how they vote, and reward them accordingly. Let your Representative know that you too will remember how they vote, and will reward them accordingly. Let them have the bankers' money, if that's what they prefer; but don't let them have the banks' money and your vote.

portrait-ben-loweBen Lowe is the author of Green Revolution: Coming Together to Care for Creation (IVP 2009) and lives in Wheaton, IL, where he has worked as a community and campus organizer.

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