The influential $42 billion-a-year payday lending industry, thriving from a surge in emergency loans to people struggling through the recession, is pouring record sums into lobbying, campaign contributions, and public relations - and getting results.
As the Senate prepares to take up financial reform, lobbyists are working to exempt companies that make short-term cash loans from proposed new federal regulations and policing. In state capitals around the country, payday companies have been fighting some 100 pieces of legislation aimed at safeguarding borrowers from high interest rates and from falling into excessive debt.
Last year, as the U.S. House drew up a financial reform bill, some lawmakers who were courted by the companies and received campaign contributions from them helped crush amendments seeking to restrict payday practices, a review by the Huffington Post Investigative Fund has found.
The failed amendments would have capped payday interest rates - which reach triple digits on an annualized basis -- and would have limited the number of loans a lender could make to a customer. Working largely behind the scenes, the industry ended up dividing the Democratic majority on the 71-member House Financial Services Committee.
Lobbyists swayed not only conservative, free-market-minded "Blue Dogs" but liberals from poorer, urban districts where payday lenders are often most active. At least one of the liberals threatened to vote with Republicans against the financial reform bill if it restricted payday lenders.
"The payday lenders have done a lot of work," House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said in an interview. "They've been very good at cultivating Democrats and minorities."
Now the industry has turned its attention to the Senate and the reform bill being assembled by Senate Banking Chairman Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), who is offering to abandon the quest for a new independent agency to protect consumers, instead giving the Federal Reserve new policing powers that could extend to payday companies.
Spokesmen for payday lenders say that attempts to rein in their business are misplaced. Short-term cash loans were not a cause of the financial crisis, they say, and as lenders of last resort they claim to provide a critically needed service in an economic downturn.
To convey their message, payday lenders have hired some of the lobbying industry's top guns. Trade groups have financed studies to underscore the small profit margin on each loan. The groups also have created a database of more than a half-million customers who can be quickly mobilized to persuade specific politicians. The persuasion often takes the form of personal, handwritten accounts from constituents about how quick cash helped them during times of financial need.
Steven Schlein, a spokesman for an industry trade group, the Community Financial Services Association, said the industry's victory in the House against the proposed amendments was hardly final.
"We were worried," said Schlein. "But we worked it hard. We have lobbyists, and they made their point. The banks worked it hard, too. But we're still in the middle of what could be a big fight."
Payday loans got their name because many of the small, unsecured loans are made as advances on a borrower's next paycheck. Operating from some 22,000 storefronts, the lenders specialize in instantly available short-term loans that typically require repayment within two weeks. While interest rates vary, typical fees are $15 to $25 for every $100 borrowed. In Virginia, someone who borrows $200 from one big lender, Advance America, must come up with $247.80 within 14 days; the fee is equivalent to a 623 percent annual rate.
Lenders range from small bodegas in Albuquerque or Miami to the chain stores of publicly traded corporations such as Cash America International Inc. and Advance America Cash Advance Centers Inc. The financial crisis has been good for their bottom lines. Advance America, for example, reported $54 million in net income in 2009, a 41 percent increase over the previous year.
Most families who took out payday loans in the years leading up the financial crisis used them to cope with emergencies or to pay for rent, utilities and food, according to a February 2009 study by the Federal Reserve Board.
Customers taking out multiple loans can face a cascading series of fees. "Some people borrow $500 and end up owing $3,000," said Jan Zavislan, a deputy attorney general in Colorado, which placed some limits on payday lenders in 2000. "Without our state regulation of this industry, payday lending would be usurious."
The financial reform bill passed by the U.S. House would create an independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency to oversee mortgages, credit cards and loans by almost all banks, savings and loans, credit unions and payday lenders. For the Senate version, Dodd and Republicans now appear close to an agreement that would jettison the notion of a stand-alone agency, which Republicans and moderate Democrats argued was unnecessary.
The activity in Congress led the industry to spend $6.1 million lobbying Washington last year, more than twice what it spent a year earlier, according to an Investigative Fund analysis of lobbying reports. The total is about equal to what JPMorgan Chase &Co. spent on lobbying in 2009. The Community Financial Services Association alone increased its spending by 74 percent, to $2.56 million.
Industry representatives say they are tracking 178 different pieces of legislation around the country - 101 of which they oppose. In response, in 34 states and the nation's capital, the industry and its companies have 40 of their own in-house lobbyists, while paying another 75 outside lobbyists.
Meanwhile, an analysis of federal elections records shows payday-linked political contributions are streaming into the campaigns of members of Congress. At the current rate -- $1.3 million since the start of last year -- the amount of money spent before the 2010 midterm elections could easily surpass the industry's spending during the 2007-2008 presidential campaign season.
Some of the industry's biggest lobbyists in Washington have experience resisting regulation of riskier forms of lending.
Wright Andrews, whose lobbying shop Butera & Andrews earned $4 million in fees for coordinating the subprime industry's lobbying between 2002 and 2006, now represents the payday industry. Records show his firm earned $240,000 from the Community Financial Services Association in 2009.
Another lobbyist hired by the trade group, Timothy Rupli, is one of the best-known and most prolific hosts of fundraisers on Capitol Hill. He has sponsored at least 94 since 2008, according to invitations tracked by the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based nonpartisan group. Politicians and donors gather at Rupli's townhouse on New Jersey Avenue only two or three blocks from the offices of members of Congress. Beneficiaries of the fundraisers have included members of the House Financial Services Committee.
Since 2005, Rupli and his wife, Linda, have contributed $220,349 directly to lawmakers in Washington. During that time, Rupli earned $4.9 million in lobbying fees from the financial services association, according to lobbying disclosure reports.
States of Influence
Payday lenders also contribute millions to candidates in state elections, making them among the dozen or so top donors when figures for state and federal campaign contributions are added together. That puts them in the same influential ballpark, for instance, as unions, the gaming industry and real estate interests.
In Wisconsin alone, efforts to establish an interest rate ceiling of 36 percent mobilized at least 27 registered lobbyists against it. On Feb. 16, Wisconsin lawmakers adopted a bill that could lead to regulation of payday lenders for the first time, but not before rejecting the interest rate limit. The debate garnered more than the usual public attention when the state assembly's speaker acknowledged having a romantic relationship with a payday industry lobbyist.
In Arizona and Ohio, the industry spent $30 million in 2008 campaigning for ballot initiatives that would have wiped out laws curtailing payday lending operations. By contrast, reform groups reported spending only $475,000.
Although the industry doesn't always win, "there's no way you can outspend them," said Jennifer J. Johnson, senior legislative counsel to the Center for Responsible Lending, a prime nemesis of the payday lenders.
The industry argues that more oversight -- especially from Washington -- isn't necessary. Among the most active trade groups making the case is Hackensack, N.J.-based Financial Service Centers of America, or FiSCA. "Financial service centers had absolutely no role in the nation's financial crisis," said Joe Coleman, chairman of the group, which represents half of the nation's purveyors of check cashing, money transfers, money orders, bill payments and small dollar, short-term loans.
In fact, payday lenders contend their services are needed now more than ever. "Who's going to make that kind of credit available to working people besides us?" asked Schlein, the spokesman for the other major trade group, the Community Financial Services Association.
The industry's critics, who include several state attorneys general, say that the industry buries too many people in debt. Meaningful restrictions and policing of the industry are long overdue, they argue.
"Payday lending is like needing a life preserver and being in front of an anvil," said North Carolina attorney general Roy Cooper, a former legislator who worked to eliminate major payday lenders from the state and succeeded in 2006.
Even in states that have successfully imposed limits on payday lenders, the companies sometimes find inventive ways around the rules. State and federal agencies often lack clear and consistent authority; in some states, lenders have responded to tougher regulations by moving operations to tribal lands or onto the Internet.
After Virginia's legislature tried to restrict fees in 2009, lenders switched to making car-title loans, with automobiles as collateral. In Ohio, payday lenders are working around a new 28 percent rate cap by invoking two older laws governing installment loans that appear to permit higher rates. In Colorado, some lenders have skirted limits on the number of consecutive loans they can make to a customer by adding five-day periods between loans.
Last October, Colorado was the site of an industry conference aimed at mobilizing hundreds of companies specializing in providing rapid access to money through payday loans and other services. The meeting at the luxurious Broadmoor Hotel, sitting on 3,000 acres of golf courses and rolling forest at the foot of the Rockies, was sponsored by the trade group FiSCA.
PowerPoint presentations, handouts, and interviews with participants suggest an industry that is growing more anxious and methodical in countering threats to its business model. Featured presentations included topics such as, "Organizing a Grassroots Effort." One PowerPoint underscored the broader range of tactics needed to defeat the industry's enemies. Stated the slide: "The days of just lobbying are forever gone."
Another slide, from a presentation by Kevin B. Kimble, a vice president of Cash America, the nation's largest supplier of pawn loans, and William Sellery Jr., a top FiSCA lobbyist, warned: "Payday lending now in play." They characterized the industry's strategic response as an "aggressive, multi-pronged defense" of payday lending, including not just traditional means of influence but creation of organizations such a "Coalition for Financial Choice" to counter the image of payday lenders as debt traps. The group's Web site, www.coalitionforfinancialchoice.org, describes financial services as a "fundamental right" and urges supporters to refer to themselves as "pro consumer choice."
The industry has reached out to seemingly unlikely allies. A luncheon speaker at the conference was Marc Morial, chief executive of the National Urban League, one of the nation's oldest civil rights organizations. Morial, a former mayor of New Orleans, has been among participants in a so-called "Small Dollar Loan Dialogue Program." The program involves inviting civic leaders and consumer advocates to unpublicized FiSCA-sponsored gatherings in hotel conference rooms to hash out differences over regulatory proposals.
'Turned Heads on the Hill'
As part of its congressional strategy, FiSCA commissioned a study last year that concluded that payday customers fare better and lenders fare worse than is commonly thought. According to the report, prepared for the trade group by the accounting firm Ernst & Young, a payday lender earns a average fee of $15.26 on a $100 loan and keeps only $1.37 as profit because of high costs and the need to absorb bad debts.
Last fall, as Congress began debating financial reform, the Ernst & Young study was being distributed along with fact sheets to a number of Capitol Hill aides. Two of them acknowledged privately to the Investigative Fund, on condition that neither they nor their bosses were identified, that the report changed their perceptions of the industry.
During discussions about consumer protections within the reform bill, key members of the financial services and rules committees of the House also received scores of handwritten letters from customers who were listed in the industry's database. Some got calls from managers of payday lending locations in their districts, according to interviews with congressional aides and industry representatives.
The tactics helped, said William P. Murray, a key industry strategist hired by FiSCA. "They absolutely opened eyes and turned heads on the Hill," said Murray. "Many customers don't feel empowered. To a large degree, what we've created has empowered them."
In the House Financial Services Committee, the industry's efforts bore fruit. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), offered an amendment to limit payday interest rates to the annual equivalent of 36 percent. It never got traction.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), chairman of the subcommittee with authority over consumer credit issues, had once advocated extending to all Americans an effective ban on payday lending for military personnel that Congress passed in 2006. By last year he had scaled back, urging an amendment that would have limited to six the number of loans a borrower could receive in a year.
Gutierrez' less-restrictive amendment died when Democrats including Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), threatened to vote against the entire consumer protection act if the payday provision was included. It also faced opposition from Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.), who countered Gutierrez with an amendment the industry regarded as favorable because it had the potential to open payday lending to new markets. Baca said in a statement last year that while "fly by night lenders" should be banned, he wanted to "ensure that students, blue collar workers, teachers, police officers and others have access to legitimate payday advance loans if needed."
All of the lawmakers - as well as many of their colleagues on the House Financial Services Committee - have received campaign contributions from the industry, its executives, employees and lobbyists. Since 2006, Gutierrez has received $38,550, Baca $16,250 and Hastings $13,500. Almost all of Baca's contributions were reported during the last half of 2009, as the financial reform bill took shape. Chairman Frank has received $12,300 from the industry's political action committees since 2006, and last year even Speier received some donations from the payday industry's PACs: $3,500.
Gutierrez, Baca and Hastings declined requests to be interviewed for this story.
Schlein, the payday trade group spokesman, said what really made a difference with some members of Congress was the letters from customers and data underscoring the industry's small profit margin on each loan.
"I wouldn't say we brought Baca aboard, but he understands now," said Schlein. "He doesn't come out against the industry with unfounded vitriol. The reason is we showed him, and he did the math."
So did committee chairman Frank, who tallied more support for Baca than for Gutierrez. He quickly nixed any payday amendments at all. "I felt if we went to votes on the floor, we'd be likely to get a bad amendment rather than a good one," Frank said in the interview.
Following their victory in the House, payday industry lobbyists have joined dozens of others paid by the financial industry to make sure the Senate does not vote to create an independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency.
Selected senators have already received handwritten letters. One woman wrote to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to explain how she'd been out of work for two weeks when her daughter fell ill with pneumonia. Rapidly, "bills fell behind, and I still had a family to feed," she wrote. A quick cash loan "helped me through some difficult times."
For the payday industry, an end to difficult times in Washington could be in sight: Without an independent agency, the companies may be more likely to escape national policing. None of the existing agencies that oversee financial institutions have jurisdiction over them.
Investigative Fund intern Adele Hampton contributed research for this story.
PAYING FOR INFLUENCE
Over the last decade, lenders specializing in short-term loans, along with company executives and others associated with them, have spent millions of dollars to win influence in Congress, according to an analysis of campaign finance data and lobbying records. Editor's note: Data for 2009-10 as of Feb. 1, 2010.
SOURCES: Federal Election Commission records, U.S. Senate lobbying disclosure data, Center for Responsive Politics. CREDITS: Adele Hampton, Huffington Post Investigative Fund