WASHINGTON • Never mind major legislation that helps the economy, even the little things get bollixed up in this Congress.
Last month, by a vote of 371-0, the House passed a bill ending the requirement that automated teller machines carry external fee notices in addition to what customers see on the screen during a transaction.
Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, the chief sponsor, described how an enterprising fellow had collected evidence that several Missouri ATMs lacked the external notices and negotiated a handsome settlement in return for not filing a lawsuit. Hundreds of such cases have been brought nationally, banks say.
Even in a Senate where posturing is more common than producing, it seemed as though a bill approved unanimously in the House (with 145 co-sponsors) would be on a smooth glide path toward passage.
Banks, who know their way around Capitol Hill, appealed to the Senate to protect them against "frivolous lawsuits."
The dual notices made sense back in the 1990s, bankers said. "Today, offsite ATMs have become common, consumers are more aware that fees may be charged at ATMs not operated by their financial institutions, and ATM video monitors are much larger, more prominent, and display sharp images," the American Banking Association wrote in a letter to Senate leaders.
But, as Americans have learned about the 112th Congress, not so fast.
Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, combined Luetkemeyer's bill with a fairly modest piece of legislation dealing with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that had passed the House on a voice vote.
The legislation was set for "hotlining" — quick passage — last week. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a co-sponsor, was among those so certain that it would fly out of the Senate that she readied a news release observing that the redundant notice requirement does nobody any good.
Enter Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., to demonstrate of the ways of the Senate. As part of his campaign to force a repeal vote on the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial oversight law, DeMint blocked consideration of the ATM combo bill by means of a 'hold', the long-standing and oft-criticized parliamentary procedure that allows one senator to stop a piece of legislation dead in its tracks.
Holds are, by design, secret maneuvers. But several knowledgeable staff members described DeMint's role.
DeMint spokesman Wesley Denton said in an email: "Dodd-Frank has formalized big financial institutions as unaccountable wards of the government, and its barrage of new and needless rules continues to suffocate our economic recovery. It can't be fixed one piece at a time, we need to repeal Dodd-Frank to stop the harm it's doing to our economy."
Luetkemeyer, surely frustrated about what has occurred, is biting his tongue.
"We're hopeful that it will make it through the Senate," said his spokesman, Paul Sloca. "It's not controversial, and we'll leave it up to the good senators to work this out."