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David B.

Livingstone

 

 

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January 11, 2006
Bankruptcy 'Reform': Bush to the Rescue for Poor, Helpless Banks
 

As has so often and so unfortunately been the case, George W. Bush and his puppeteers at MBNA, Chase, Citigroup and the rest of the financial "services" sector had their way with the U.S. Congress and the American people last year with the passage of his bankruptcy "reform" initiative.

 

Existing bankruptcy laws, we were told, were far too lax. Fraudsters and cheats were left to plunder poor defenseless banks, racking up monstrous credit card debts for luxury items, then simply filing for Chapter 7 and saddling others with their ill-disposed debts. Something had to be done, for the sake of the economy and the republic and mom and apple pie, and by golly, George W. Bush - with more than a little help from dozens of fellow bank campaign-contribution recipients, including Delaware's Joe Biden - was ready to put a stop to it. Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which allowed for the actual discharge of consumer debt, was to be made almost unattainable, with the majority of protection-seekers steered into more onerous Chapter 13 regulated repayment programs instead - as well as forced plaintiff-paid "debt counseling." And thus with great fanfare and much rejoicing in boardrooms and on Wall Street, the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 2005 became the law of the land.

 

Celebration in other quarters was considerably more muted.

 

Following the passage of Bush's bankruptcy bill, record numbers of Americans raced against time to file before the new draconian regulations went into effect. In the intervening months, court dockets have been jammed with the downtrodden, desperate, debt-ridden underclass - millions of everyday people who through bad luck, bad decisions, or bad advice found themselves flailing frantically for the Chapter 7 life-ring in hopes of escaping a future of financial serfdom.

 

A few hundred such people found themselves in a set of courtrooms in a downtown Detroit office building in late December. This was a court-mandated "meeting of creditors," a procedure wherein an individual plaintiff's creditors were given the opportunity to challenge bankruptcy filings before a court administrator - just another routine, dehumanizing step en route to debt discharge. Huddled on their uncomfortable metal chairs in the sweltering waiting room, they were a disparate group - the young, the old, male, female, professionals, laborers, retirees. Snappily-dressed lawyers darted from one side of the room to the other, conferring with nervous clients. The court, they had been told, was behind schedule, and several hours' delay was to be expected before individual cases would be heard. In the meantime, there was nothing to do but sit, stare and wait. An edgy young woman with dyed hair and multiple ear piercings sat and bit her lip; a middle aged man in a down vest and a baseball cap stared blankly at a white wall. A couple shuffled papers and argued quietly with one another. All seemed unified solely by a sense of anxiety and quiet despair.

 

The individual hearings proceeded with dull regularity. Duly sworn and with paperwork signed, each was asked the same question: Why were they requesting bankruptcy protection? The mumbled replies revealed additional shared characteristics: the phrases "lost my job" and "medical bills" were repeated with numbing regularity. And with the word "dismissed," each was left to walk past the staring crowd of fellow debtors and into the antiseptic white-tiled hallway alone.

 

It is hard to believe that this sad, subdued group were to be considered the lucky ones, but they were. By dint of chance, their cases were proceeding prior to the old regulations� cut-off date, and in most cases their debts would be discharged, enabling each to pursue the fresh start that had been the original bankruptcy law's principal intent. Their successors will not be so lucky. Lost your job? Hospitalized without insurance? Divorced, downsized, disabled? Tough luck for you. The credit card companies' dream law ensures that you'll remain squarely within their sights, perpetually dunnable, perpetually actionable, perpetually liable, and in many cases, effectively rendered their vassal.

 

Consider corporate downsizing, the bankruptcy of major auto suppliers, accelerating trends toward outsourcing, spiraling health care costs, and the steady creep of inflation. If the bankruptcy courts' burgeoning graduating class of December 2005 constitutes the lucky few, exactly how many Americans will be members of the unlucky many in years to come?

 

Debtors of 2006, take heed: The social safety net of last resort has been yanked from beneath you, and has been replaced with a tiger pit. Enjoy your taste of compassionate conservatism. With 30 percent compound interest. And watch George Bush, Joseph Biden, and MBNA pilot the last lifeboat away from you over the horizon as you quietly slip beneath the waves.

 

2006 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.

 

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