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Banks, Retailers In Lobbying Race Over Debit Fees

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Banks, Retailers In Lobbying Race Over Debit Fees

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Banks, Retailers In Lobbying Race Over Debit Fees

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Okay, while an immigration overhaul may not be imminent, Congress did pass an overhaul of financial regulations last year. It's supposed to protect consumers, but some of the biggest banks and retailers are already battling each other over one provision.

NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH: This is a multi-billion dollar fight about who should bear the cost when you swipe your debit card to buy a bag of Skittles, a cup of coffee or a television. Right now the retailer pays a charge to your bank and either Visa or MasterCard. It's hidden to consumers, called an interchange fee. Nationwide, these fees cost retailers about $16 billion a year. But thanks to the financial overhaul legislation, costs to retailers are about to go way down.

Banks and the card companies are poised to lose billions. So now they're pushing legislation to delay the start of the new rule.

Mr. PAUL BLUMENTHAL (Sunlight Foundation): Congress is going to decide who's going to win. Is it a big business or the biggest business?

KEITH: Paul Blumenthal is the senior writer at the Sunlight Foundation, an open-government group. And he's watching this fight closely.

On one side you've got Wal-Mart and Home Depot and Amazon and the convenience store on the corner. And on the other side you've got Visa and MasterCard and the big banks and the credit union down the block.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Senators and congressmen see this as the premier lobbying issue at the moment. This seems to be the one that sticks out as the one that they're being lobbied on the most.

KEITH: There's a huge amount of money being spent, but it's hard to get a read on just how much. In the first quarter of this year, the coalitions for the retailers and the banks spent a combined $340,000 on lobbying. But it's not just the coalitions. Individual retailers and individual banks and all their trade associations are lobbying on this too.

And then there are the ads, in print, on television, radio, and beyond, that aren't even counted as lobbying.

(Soundbite of P.A. system)

Unidentified Woman: Red line (unintelligible)...

KEITH: I'm riding on the Metro here in Washington, D.C., and the fight over these interchange rules has made it even here. There are ads all over this train that say: Washington is helping giant retailers clean out your wallet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TRISH WEXLER (Spokeswoman, Electronic Payments Coalition): We have ads running on about 100 railcars.

KEITH: Trish Wexler is the spokesperson for the Electronic Payments Coalition, the group of banks and credit unions behind the Metro ads.

Ms. WEXLER: When you talk about it in terms like interchange fees or merchant discount fee, you know, we kind of tune it out as average Americans. My job was to make sure that people understood this means that our debit card is going to end up costing us more as a result. And all of the sudden people started waking up and saying, wow, you know, I don't want this to hit my pocket.

KEITH: The reason it might hit your pocket is if the rule goes through, the finance industry would lose about $12 billion a year. Banks and credit unions say they'll have to raise fees on consumers or slash rewards or even stop issuing debit cards altogether. Retailers say if they win, that money will likely get passed through to consumers. Both sides say if the other guys win, consumers lose.

Interestingly, both the banks and the retailers say they have the little guy on their side. Bill Cheney is president of the Credit Union National Association.

Mr. BILL CHENEY (Credit Union National Association): We've had over 250,000 of our members contact their representatives in Washington, just in the last month.

(Soundbite of beeping)

KEITH: But retailers are calling and writing their members of Congress too, saying please let the rule go into effect as planned. Tariq Hussein is a 7-Eleven franchisee in Washington, D.C.

Mr. TARIQ HUSSEIN (7-Eleven Franchisee): We already worked on this one. We already figured that this is not fair. Why re-open now? What happened?

KEITH: What happened is $12 billion is a lot of money. If Congress doesn't act, which is entirely possible, then the new rule will take effect July 21. And sometime after that, maybe we'll learn how consumers came out.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington.

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