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Frank’s ‘Mea Culpa’ Over Credit Card Waivers

A month ago we reported on the silencing of consumer witnesses scheduled to testify before a House subcommittee on credit card reform, charging that it was the GOP minority responsible for the gagging. Yesterday, at a hearing of the same subcommittee on the same topic, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) confused the issue a bit by announcing a “mea culpa” over the incident.

The explanation, as I understand it, is this: It was, indeed, the committee’s Republican leaders (and not Frank) who pushed the cardholders’ to sign last month’s controversial waivers, which would have allowed the banks to discuss the witnesses’ financial records in any forum, at any time, without limitations. Several of those witnesses said afterwards that they had requested different waivers tailored more specifically to the hearing at hand, but the minority staff refused. Susan Wones, of Denver, Col., said one GOP staffer became “belligerent” over her request.

Another witness, Steven Autrey of Fredericksburg, Va., said of a GOP aide:

I asked the person I spoke with if they could re-word the language to be a little more restrictive, and I never heard back. And there was no interest there. But I would have signed a waiver, had it been reasonable and limited to the scope of this conversation they were trying to have today.

The result was that the witnesses refused to sign the waivers, and did not testify as a consequence. The hearing, however, went on without them, with representatives of several big banks lending their defense of the industry.

Which brings us to Frank’s statement yesterday. The decision to postpone the consumers’ testimonies in order to salvage the rest of last month’s hearing was Frank’s, even as other Democrats were pushing to make a larger issue of it.

Hence, yesterday’s “mea culpa” was not directed only towards the consumer witnesses (three of whom had returned to Washington to deliver their testimonies), but “to everyone in the room,” according to a Frank spokesperson.

The tale has a happy ending. The waivers signed by the witnesses satisfied everyone’s sense of fairness, and the cardholders’ testimony went on yesterday as planned.

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