ACORN Members Want Support in Bailout Bill

Posted September 23, 2008 at 6:33pm

It was standing room only as Senators grilled Bush administration officials on their $700 billion bailout plan to fix the ailing financial system at a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on Tuesday morning.

But it wasn’t just staffers, media and Wall Street lobbyists trying to figure out what Congress was going to do next. Sprinkled throughout the audience were some decidedly non-Washington types — local representatives of ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.

Dressed in fire-engine-red hats and T-shirts, more than 30 people from New York, Delaware, New Jersey and D.C. came to Capitol Hill to make sure lawmakers took seriously a controversial plan to allow homeowners to have their loans restructured in bankruptcy court, which could prevent some from facing foreclosure.

“The true frustration is the injustice that taxpayers like me are footing this $700 billion bailout,” said Tawiuna Williams, a homeowner from Delaware who came to Washington for the hearing.

The financial rescue package has put civil rights and consumer groups in the middle of the fray.

ACORN is part of a broader coalition of consumer and civil rights groups that have worked on the bankruptcy provision for the past year and have made it their biggest priority in the financial package.

Their grass-roots presence is just one lobbying tactic ACORN and other groups are employing on the issue.

“We understand that this bill is moving quickly and we fear if we don’t focus all of our energy on it we will not be able to succeed,” said Nancy Zirkin, a lobbyist with the Leadership Council on Civil Rights.

While much of the debate on Capitol Hill revolved around the enormous sum of money for the Treasury Department bailout, many of the ACORN members represented real-life examples of what for many is a dire economic situation.

Williams, a mother of three, said she is worried about whether she will face foreclosure on her home after her small takeout business failed last year.

“It’s hard to just make ends meet,” Williams said.

The group took that message to the Treasury Department on Tuesday afternoon following the committee hearing. One member was dressed in a “fat cat” suit and wore an orange life preserver to symbolize the bailout. ACORN representatives staged 40 similar actions across the country.

“The message is: Don’t just bail out Wall Street. Bail out Main Street,” said Brenda Muñiz, legislative director for ACORN. “If Treasury is going to buy up all these bad mortgage-backed securities from these investment institutions, it would certainly seem like they have the power to make that happen.”

Muñiz and Bertha Lewis, executive director of ACORN New York, also met Tuesday with the staffs of New York Sens. Charles Schumer (D) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D), encouraging them to push for a mortgage fix.

In addition to meeting with Democratic leadership, the groups sent a letter to lawmakers on Monday urging Congress to include the court-supervised mortgage restructuring provision in the bill.

“We cannot support legislation that fails to help the millions of families in danger of losing their homes, while spending hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer money to bail out those who caused the problem,” wrote ACORN along with thirty-four other groups, including the AFL-CIO, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the LCCR and U.S. PIRG.

So far, both the Senate and House draft bills have included the controversial provision that would allow judges to change the terms of borrowers’ mortgages, making them easier to afford.

Spearheaded by Senate Banking Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), the proposal has sparked the ire of the banking and mortgage industry.

“Everyone from our side is on the same page,” said Steve Verdier, director of Congressional affairs at the Independent Community Bankers of America. “We think it would be harmful to new homebuyers because it would increase interest rates.”

ICBA, along with groups such as the American Bankers Association, signed a letter earlier this week arguing against turning over mortgages to the bankruptcy courts.

Supporters of the provision say that Wall Street is arguing against bankruptcy reform while trying to keep executive compensation at astronomical rates.

“I find it absolutely unbelievable that they are focused on that and totally opposed to this bankruptcy provision,” Zirkin said. “It’s OK to help themselves, but they don’t want to help ordinary Americans.”

Muñiz says she knows it’s an uphill battle. “There is a core set of groups that tend to work together on these issues,” Muñiz said. “When we are all yelling the same thing, I think that does get heard. Whether we counter the influence that industry has — that remains to be seen.”