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Historic Financial Reform Moving Through Congress

It’s complicated, but there’s a lot in there for you

 Wall Street

— Christopher Anderson/Magnum

The bill would allow retailers to offer discounts to customers who pay by cash, check or debit card, rather than by credit card, and would permit merchants to set minimum-purchase amounts for use of cards. So if you pay cash or check for a new TV set or barbecue grill, you might end up paying less than if you used your credit card.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the sponsor of the successful amendment, argued that controls on fees were needed because the biggest credit card firms, which include Visa and MasterCard, control 80 percent of the credit and debit market, allowing them to charge high fees for their services. But bank analysts suggest that if the new rules become law, banks might end up raising the fees they charge for using credit cards, or severely restrict the use of free checking accounts to make up for lost revenue from credit card fees.

The House bill contains no such restrictions on fees, though a new financial protection agency would have the power to regulate credit card practices. The differences will have to be ironed out.

That will change if the Senate gets its way. Its new bill contains a proposal by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., that requires that you get your score for free if it was used to deny you credit, it required you to pay a higher interest rate on a loan, or it prevented you from being hired for a job.

“This I believe will empower consumers, it will increase the financial literacy in our country,” Udall said. “It’s a win-win.”

This measure is also not contained in the House bill.

  •  Consumer protection. Both the House and the Senate bills call for creation of a watchdog agency. The Senate’s new consumer financial protection bureau would be housed in the Federal Reserve, but with almost total independence from it. The bureau would take over responsibilities now spread across seven agencies to oversee financial products that are offered to consumers.

It also would limit the ability of mortgage lenders to assess penalties on borrowers who pay off their loans early and prohibit paying brokers and loan officers more to steer borrowers to higher interest rates or certain risky features. Instead, a broker’s commission would be based on the size or number of loans originated.

The House bill, in contrast, proposes an independent consumer protection agency, with more latitude to implement regulations— and it would exempt auto dealers who offer their customers financing. Monday night, the Senate voted for the same exemption, despite President Obama’s opposition. Such an exclusion, he said, was a loophole that could allow dealers to “inflate rates, insert hidden fees into the fine print of paperwork and include expensive add-ons that catch purchasers by surprise.”

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