Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Some Good Things Happened

For all the kvetching and cavilling I've done about the White House and Congress in 2009, I have to admit that some good things did get done this year, or at least are in progress. David Lazarus, financial columnist for the Los Angeles Times, feels the same way and points to three areas in which we've made progress.

it was also an extraordinary year for consumers, with significant progress made in making banks play more fairly, reforming the healthcare system and improving product safety.

We may not get everything that we want. But the mere fact that all these things have gotten so much high-profile attention, and that at least a modicum of change seems likely across the board, underlines consumers' higher standing in public policy.

First, making the banks play fairly with respect to credit cards was a significant move:

The big win for consumers on the financial front this year was a revamping of credit card rules that introduce some much-needed transparency and fairness to the lending market.

The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act, which President Obama signed into law in May, requires card issuers to give at least 45 days' notice of any significant change to their offerings, and to ensure that cardholders have at least 21 days to pay their bills each month.

It also prevents issuers from boosting interest rates in the first year after an account is opened and blocks banks from raising rates on existing balances.

Mr. Lazarus also points out that there are few more goodies consumers deserve with respect to the banking industry. Congress needs to crack down on bank overdraft procedures and put in place the new watchdog program President Obama suggests is needed, a Consumer Financial Protection Agency. Banking lobbyists already have their knickers in a twist over both, but I suspect Congress will be working on both even if after the 2010 elections.

Health care reform, as Mr. Lazarus points out, is still a work in progress. First of all, the House and Senate bills have yet to be reconciled. Second, whatever emerges is going to be far less than what I and millions of other Americans wanted. Still, it's a start.

We may end up with a comprehensive, turbocharged overhaul of the healthcare system and something approaching universal coverage. Or we may end up with table scraps.

The important thing is that this is the furthest we've gotten on healthcare reform in decades, and the issue clearly isn't going away (like, say, Social Security reform, which has all but vanished from the legislative horizon).

Mr. Lazarus is clearly a glass half-full kind of guy, but he's right about the fact that it's been fifteen years since anyone in Washington has even thought about doing something about that 900 pound gorilla in the room.

Finally, and this is something I hadn't considered until reading his column this morning, Mr. Lazarus notes some advances in the consumer safety arena.

Clearly, there's still much work to do on the product-safety front. But that's not to say there weren't some pretty noteworthy advances this year.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission finally got a full-time leader. The position has been open since former President George W. Bush nominated a manufacturing-industry lobbyist for the job in 2007 who later withdrew from consideration once Congress started asking questions.

After remaining vacant for nearly three years, the commission's top spot was finally filled in May when Obama named Inez Tenenbaum to the job.

Moreover, this year saw a new law taking effect that significantly beefed up the Consumer Product Safety Commission and provided federal authorities with more resources for keeping unsafe goods off store shelves.

So, while it may have been a year of weak soup, at least there was some soup to be had. I'm still not thrilled with the Obama presidency or the 111th Congress, but a few good things did get done. I'll toast those few things on Thursday night.

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Anonymous Ralphie; said...

Half a loaf, better than none.

4:39 AM  
Anonymous Jamie said...

Always thought Obama was a half a pony sort of guy. And he's living up to my expectations.

9:48 AM  

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