Monday, May 02, 2011

This sounds familiar...

What is the biggest battle in Congress right now? Maybe not what you think.

The fees Chung pays are a tiny fraction of Wall Street’s swipe fee windfall; banks take in a combined $48 billion a year from these “interchange” fees on debit and credit cards, according to analysts at The Nilson Report. That money comes out of the pockets of consumers as well as merchants, as stores pass on whatever costs they can to their customers.Major retailers -- the Walmarts, Home Depots and the Targets of the world -- complain that card fees are one of their biggest annual expenses, and they’ve entered into a Capitol Hill battle royale against card companies to roll back the lucrative fee regime. Last year’s financial reform bill ordered the Federal Reserve to crack down on debit card swipe fees, a $16 billion pool of money from which $8 billion flows to just 10 banks. As a concession to Wall Street, credit card fees were left unscathed.But the clock never ticks down to zero in Washington: one year’s law is the next year’s repeal target. Politicians, showered with cash from card companies and giant retailers alike, have been moving back and forth between camps, paid handsomely for their shifting allegiances.The swipe fee spat is generating huge business for K Street: A full 118 ex-government officials and aides are currently registered to lobby on behalf of banks in the fee fight, according to data compiled for this story by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan research group. Retailers have signed up at least 124 revolving-door lobbyists. And at least one lobbyist has switched sides during the melee. Republican Thomas Shipman of Cornerstone Government Affairs registered to lobby for the merchant’s leading player, Walmart, in 2010, only to move over to Visa in 2011. (The firm’s executive vice president, Fred Clark, says that while Cornerstone is registered to lobby for Visa on “electronic payments,” the shop told the card company it wouldn’t lobby on interchange fees specifically, because of the appearance of a conflict of interest. He also says that while Shipman was registered to lobby on behalf of Walmart in 2010, he never specifically lobbied on the interchange issue.) [More of an informative post]
This lobbying free-for-all has some of the identical characteristics of many ag issues and could be a vague forecast of their fates in Congress.

This is such a classic case of how things work on Capitol Hill. The issue itself is (a) pretty much unknown to the average voter and (b) worth absolute mountains of money to a very small, very influential segment of American industry, namely big banks and big retailers. This makes it the perfect lobbying issue: banks and retailers are highly motivated to spend mind-boggling sums of money on this, while voters barely even know this fight is going on.The whole piece is worth a read when you have a few free minutes. When you're done (or maybe before you start), you should also read this short post from Adam Levitin that explains the actual technical issue with swipe fees aside from the fact that one group of millionaires is fighting a different group of millionaires over how to split up billions of dollars. It explains the policy piece of the story that Carter and Grim don't. [More]
I think it more likely farm subsidies will be thrown into a larger budget/deficit compromise somewhere along the line, and our vaunted lobby may meet with less success than they have with previous farm bills. Also I wonder if many of the issues, such as ethanol tax credits wont even be around by the time that compromise is hammered out. The rhetoric is getting pretty heated as corn prices soar and planting progress doesn't.
So what's the solution? First, Mr. Pope says, get rid of the ethanol subsidies and the tariff. "I am in competition with the government and the oil industry," he says. "It's not fair." Smithfield's economists estimate corn prices would fall by a dollar a bushel if ethanol blending wasn't subsidized. "Even the announcement that it is going away would see the price of corn go down, which would translate very quickly into reduced meat prices in the meat case," he says. Imagine what would happen if the mandate and tariff were eliminated, too.He also advocates lifting regulatory and tax burdens on business. "I fundamentally don't understand the logic of corporate income taxes," he tells me. "If I have a 35% tax, all I do is take that 35% tax and I transfer it into the price of bacon and the price of pork chops."Then there's the challenge of opening up export markets, which Mr. Pope sees as a long-term opportunity for U.S. agriculture. "This is a land-rich country, with rich soils, with the right kind of temperatures and the right kind of cultivation practices," he says. "We can raise livestock and compete with anybody in the world. That's how we can help the balance of payments." (Smithfield has European operations but has had a hard time cracking Asia, and especially China. "It's easy to invest," Mr. Pope says, but "it's hard to make money" there thanks to rampant intellectual-property rights violations and other hazards.)While Mr. Pope waits to see how the politics of ethanol and trade play out, he's not standing still. He's assigned one of his senior executives the task of figuring out what else Smithfield could possibly feed hogs, other than corn. Could Mr. Pope have envisioned setting up such an enterprise a few years ago? "Absolutely not" he says. "It's me trying to change our business model to adapt to the realities that I have to live in."Mr. Pope says the "losers" here "are the consumer, who's going to have to pay more for the product, and the livestock farmer who's going to have to buy high-priced grain that he can't afford because he's stretching his own lines of credit. The hog farmer . . . is in jeopardy of simply going out of business 'cause he doesn't have the cash liquidity to even pay for the corn to pay for the input to raise the hog. It's a dynamic that we can't sustain." [More]
I am reluctant to say "this time will be different", but that is my read on the situation. Farm lobbyists will be working in a much larger tidal pull than we have seen, and whatever you think about the Tea Party (and for me that's not much) they have stampeded the Republican party to near hysteria over ideological absolutes. Farm subsidies look like a much bigger target to a much larger opposing force. 

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