Thursday, October 7, 2010

Corker and Payday Lenders

Timothy Noah of Slate has an article on payday lending whose heart is in the right place, but which unfortunately says this:

Indeed, one of the sketchier provisions in Dodd-Frank affirmatively prohibits Warren's new agency from setting a maximum interest rate on payday loans. This was inserted at the behest of Senator Bob Corker, R.-Tenn. (The payday-loan business was reportedly born in Corker's home state and continues to thrive there.)
The part about Sen. Corker is just not true, and it's one of those memes that for some reason really bothers me. The article that Noah links to is a March NYT article by Sewell Chan that claimed — falsely, it turns out — that Corker was pushing for a carve-out for payday lenders in the new CFPB law. (At the time, Corker had broken ranks with Sen. Shelby and the rest of the Republicans and was negotiating directly with Chris Dodd on the CFPB issue.) The NYT article doesn't say anything about usury, which Noah clearly confuses with the payday lending carve-out.

I remember when that article came out — people were outraged that Corker would do the bidding of such a heinous industry. (Krugman even posted about it here.) I mainly remember because the always-excellent David Merkel asked me about it in the comments to one of my posts. Here's what I said at the time:
I'd be very much opposed to a carve-out for payday lenders, but I also have a very hard time believing it'll be in the bill. Sure, Corker is from Tennessee, which is home to some big payday lenders, but these stories sound to me like they're coming from other Senators' staffers -- who are just speculating -- rather than Corker or Dodd's offices. (My initial reaction was that the story came from Shelby or some other Republican, in an attempt to start stirring up Democratic opposition to any compromise bill that Dodd and Corker produce.)

It's possible that Dodd could let Corker put a payday lender carve-out in the discussion draft, just so Corker can appease the payday lenders in his state, and then have the carve-out killed in markup. But I really don't think it's a serious option. Corker is independently wealthy, so it's not like he relies on campaign contributions from payday lenders or anything.
And sure enough, the NYT article turned out to be utterly bogus. As soon as the bill came out of markup, Dodd released the following statement:
“During our negotiations Senator Corker agreed to have the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s rules apply to all firms providing financial products and services,” said Chairman Dodd. “He never once requested exclusion for any individual lending sector. Senator Corker knows that there needs to be parity in the way banks and non-banks are regulated.”
But the damage had already been done: that Corker pushed for an exemption for payday lenders is now convential wisdom.

Look, I disagreed with Corker on most of the substantive issues during the financial reform debate. (I am, after all, a life-long Democrat.) But he's also one of the rare Republicans who, at least on financial issues, seems to genuinely care about making good policy rather than scoring political points on Fox News. So the least we can do is not indulge fairly obvious attempts by other Republicans to smear him.

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