A Quick-Hit Lobby Blitz Yields Little — So Far

Posted April 3, 2009 at 5:45pm

Retailers and merchants upped the ante last week in their long-standing fight against credit card interchange fees, barnstorming the House and Senate financial committees long considered the home turf of their foes.

The quick campaign launch by the Merchants Payments Coalition did not result in any new language curbing the fees — which are charged to merchants each time a customer uses a credit or debit card — in legislation that passed out of a House Financial Services subcommittee and the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee last week.

And that, in turn, led its opponents, who say the fees are needed to cover the costs and risks of issuing plastic, to wonder out loud whether the coalition’s actions are more public relations than practical legislative strategy.

“My sense is they’re going to lambaste the credit card companies this year and look for legislation next year,— said an outside consultant for the coalition that represents the credit card companies. “You always get press when you do something like this.—

The coalition’s aggressive stance and new talking points — which compare the fee-based practices of the credit card industry to the implosion of the subprime mortgage industry — also run the risk of appearing opportunistic and possibly raising the ire of exactly the Members of Congress whom its campaign seeks to recruit.

“This was a little out of left field,— said an aide to one of the Members targeted by the coalition. There has been no follow-up either, the aide said, concluding that, so far, the coalition’s “bark was a lot bigger than the bite.—

In fact, the Merchants Payments Coalition originally took up the interchange fee issue last year in the House Judiciary Committee. The bill, which would have given merchants the power to negotiate fees with issuing banks under the guidance of the Justice Department, passed out of the committee but never reached the House floor.

“We’re a group of retailers, and Financial Services is the home turf of the biggest lobbying industry in Washington,— said an executive at one of the associations leading the coalition. “We had to look to another opportunity to get Congress involved.—

Visa and MasterCard control 80 percent of the market and set the default interchange fees, which average nearly 2 percent for each transaction. Those fees earned the credit card industry $48 billion in 2008 and cost the average household $427 per year, the coalition said.

“We thought it was an antitrust issue, but apparently it’s not,— a longtime credit card industry lobbyist said, referring to this year’s emphasis on the Financial Services panel. “It’s a risky strategy, parachuting in on legislation, and I’m not sure they’re making any friends.—

National Retail Federation general counsel Mallory Duncan said, “This is a very big problem, and it may require multiple approaches to fix it.—

The House and Senate bills, which are designed to crack down on deceptive practices by credit card issuers, are being fast-tracked through both chambers of Congress. The House bill could hit the floor by late April, although the Senate bill, which is also ready for floor debate, appears to face more opposition.

The coalition of grocers, convenience store owners and retailers who oppose the fees launched its attack last week.

The six-figure grass-roots campaign targets eight junior members of the House Financial Services Committee in their districts, as well as Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, who is struggling to regain his footing with constituents back home.

They have also recently hired New Partners, the consulting firm led by Paul Tewes, the Democratic campaign veteran who led Barack Obama’s Iowa caucus victory and field strategy for his presidential campaign.

“We are going to the consumers and small-business owners hit by the economy to pressure Members of Congress to seize this time,— said Cara Morris Stern, a partner in Tewes’ firm. “We feel you cannot regulate banks and credit cards without addressing interchange.—

Other lobbyists representing the Merchants Payments Coalition include the American Continental Group, the Nickles Group, Patton Boggs and Steptoe & Johnson. The firms earned $245,000 collectively from the coalition in just the fourth quarter of 2008, according to Senate lobby records.

The goal of the retailers’ group is to gain a seat at the table in negotiating the interchange fees and to regulate the rules and fees that it says are kept hidden from consumers by credit card companies.

The banks, credit unions and credit card companies that receive revenue from the fees argue that merchants know the costs of accepting cards and do so because the advantages, such as increased sales and reduced risk, are numerous.

“The system is working,— said Trish Wexler, spokeswoman for the Electronic Payments Coalition, which represents credit card companies, credit unions and banks. “The merchants are asking Congress for a bailout on the backs of consumers.

“The bottom line is always the same,— she said. “At the end of the day, they have no intention of passing any savings on to their consumers.—

Merchants, however, noted that the interchange fees have soared, rising threefold since 2001, when they were just $16 billion.

“This is the opening salvo,— said Hank Armour, president and CEO of the National Association of Convenience Stores, one of the groups leading the coalition. “We’re going to be running as long as it takes to solve the problem.—