9:30 a.m. Congressman Keith Ellison (MN-05) came into the 110th Congress as one of the Democratic Party’s new stars (and the only Muslim in the House), despite his predecessor (longtime Congressman Martin Sabo) failing to offer a ringing endorsement during the 2006 campaign. Ellison nabbed a prized seat on the Judiciary Committee – a position which helped launch him to a Congressional power ranking of #159 (source: Congress.org).
9:40 a.m. This is the 5th in a series of talks at the Humphrey Institute with Minnesota’s D.C. delegation (previous speakers were Senators Coleman and Klobuchar, Congresswoman Betty McCollum, and Congressman Tim Walz.
9:45 a.m. Ellison begins his speech outlining the basic economic problems faced by working families in today’s economy. Ellison is promoting a ‘consumer justice agenda’ – Ellison’s first bill introduced into the House last month seeks to prohibit ‘universal defaults’ on credit card accounts, such that companies may not raise interest rates simply because a consumer is in default on a loan from a different lender.
9:55 a.m. Ellison outlines other inequalities within America – decrying the amount of perks and bonuses received by corporate CEOs. Ellison states he is not opposed to these benefits in principle, but finds them egregious considering how much working families are struggling today. Working families today are increasingly turning to sources of credit today — consumer debt in the U.S. is over 2 trilllion dollars, according to the Congressman.
10:00 a.m. Ellison’s bill banning the practice of universal default was also co-sponsored by three Minnesota U.S. House members (McCollum (DFL-04), Oberstar (DFL-08), and Walz (DFL-01)). The bill was introduced to the Committee on Financial Services, on which Ellison also serves. Ellison outlines several practices by consumer lenders that he deems inappropriate (payday loans, teaser rates, double cycle billing, pay to pay etc.)- such that, he states, “you’ve got to be rich to be poor,” because everything is so expensive.
10:05 a.m. Ellison is effective in engaging the audience — peppering his speech with questions to which he asks the audience to chime in with answers. Ellison attempts to tie the practices of consumer lending for housing to why neighborhoods frequently devolve into crime (through foreclosures, which lowers property values, which introduces the criminal element and predatory lenders into the neighborhood).
10:15 a.m. Ellison gives examples of members from his district who have lost their houses, to which he partially attributes the practices of lenders. Ellison states the most vulnerable subgroups to these practices are the poor, people of color, and the elderly. Ellison says he is in Congress to level the playing field for working people.
10:20 a.m. The forum now turns to a question and answer session moderated by Dr. Lawrence Jacobs, Director of the Institute’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance. When asked if he is ‘hostile to business,’ Ellison acknowledges businesses must grow, but must continue to be regulated, or otherwise our country will head into ‘dire straits.’
10:25 a.m. Upon being asked, Ellison states he does indeed believe consumers are sometimes ‘victims’ – overwhelmed, for example, with complicated disclosure information.
10:30 a.m. Ellison acknowledges that not everyone is in a position to be a homeowner, and that there may be a lower percentage of home owners if some of his proposals were enacted into law.
10:35 a.m. Ellison was asked a question about the practices of lenders soliciting college students to sign up for credit cards. Ellison stated when his 19 year-old son came home with a credit card application he was surprised, but when his 12 year-old came home with one he was ‘shocked.’
10:40 a.m. Ellison states this is not a partisan issue – pointing out some Republicans in the House who were also treated credit card companies quite harshly during committee hearings. Ellison draws laughter from the audience when he adds that his own father is a Republican: “He could step on a dime and tell you if it was head or tails.”