TPM News

It looks like the New York Times liked our Theresa Hatt story.

That was the one about how a Bank of America estates rep tried to guilt-trip the son of a deceased card-holder into paying his mother's credit-card balance, though he was under no obligation to do so. We also spoke to a former B of A collections rep, who told us such techniques were encouraged.

And today the Times reports on a debt-collection firm that contracts with credit-card companies to go after the relatives of people who died with outstanding debts.

The paper makes clear that in most cases -- like the one we highlighted -- the relatives have no legal obligation to pay up. Not that that's made clear, of course:

Scott Weltman of Weltman, Weinberg & Reis, a Cleveland law firm that performs deceased collections, says that if family members ask, "we definitely tell them" they have no legal obligation to pay. "But is it disclosed upfront -- 'Mr. Smith, you definitely don't owe the money'? It's not that blunt."
Collection agents at the firm, DCM, use some sophisticated techniques.
New hires at DCM train for three weeks in what the company calls "empathic active listening," which mixes the comforting air of a funeral director with the nonjudgmental tones of a friend. The new employees learn to use such anger-deflecting phrases as "If I hear you correctly, you'd like..."

"You get to be the person who cares," the training manager, Autumn Boomgaarden, told a class of four new hires.

Often, they succeed:
Brenda Edwards, one of DCM's top collectors, spoke with a woman in New Jersey about her mother's $544.96 credit card bill.

"She had no will, no finances, nothing," the daughter said. "Nothing went to probate." The $200 in the checking account was used for funeral expenses. But the woman also said the family "filed a form with the county," indicating that perhaps there was a legal estate after all.

"Is anyone in the family in a position to pay this?" Ms. Edwards asked, adding: "I'm not telling you it needs to be paid at all."

The woman reached a decision. "I will talk to my brothers and sisters and we will pay this," she said.

DCM's chief executive makes clear that right now, collecting even on small debts is crucial for credit card behemoths. "The financial services industry is under a tremendous amount of pressure, and every dollar we collect improves their profitability," he tells the Times.

But given the parlous state of the industry, those collectors had better be working overtime.

There seems something just a little fishy about the new Rasmussen poll deflating the idea that Rush Limbaugh is the leader of the Republican Party, with only 11% of Republicans agreeing to the premise and 81% disagreeing.

On the other hand, the phrasing of this question seems like it's designed to elicit a No response, especially from Republicans: "Agree or Disagree: 'Rush Limbaugh is the leader of the Republican Party -- he says jump and they say how high.'"

Not surprisingly, GOP respondents don't want to admit they are the yes-man patsies of a radio loudmouth.

Uh-oh -- another Democratic senator vowed today to oppose the $410 billion spending bill that is slated to keep the government funded until October.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), appearing at a press conference on the line-item veto alongside Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), joined Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN) in urging President Obama to veto the spending measure:

I have typically not voted for omnibus bills because they always end up like this. And you know the president should veto it. And if it sent over there, the president should veto it. He should say, look, I asked for a stimulus bill that had no earmarks in it, and it did not based on the definition we're using in this bill.

As he notes, Feingold's at least being consistent here. But let's take a quick whip count, to see whether Democrats can actually pass this puppy ...

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A new Fairleigh Dickinson poll in New Jersey finds that Gov. Jon Corzine (D) is in serious danger of defeat at the hands of former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie in the election this coming November.

The numbers: Christie 41%, Corzine 32%. New Jersey is a heavily Democratic state, but Corzine has been hurt by the state's budget situation. And Christie retains popularity from his years as a U.S. Attorney, when he successfully prosecuted politicians from both parties. On the other hand, he has had his share of controversies involving the Bush Administration, and Corzine is sure to use those against him.

My own two cents, as a New Jerseyan: As a rule, we hate our politicians. But Christie can't bask in the glory of the polls right now, because it's also very common for incumbent Democrats to be way below 50%, and still win at the end of the day in this blue state.

New Jersey has shown a classic pattern of having high undecideds and the Republican ahead, only to see the undecided voters eventually come home and (reluctantly) vote for the Democrat. This is exactly what happened in the the 2006 Senate race, for example. But we'll see how this plays out, especially when the Dems start attacking Christie as a Bush-crony.

Are lawmakers who took those Antiguan junkets on Allen Stanford's dime paying a political price back home?

It's hard to say. But John Cornyn and Pete Sessions, the Texas GOP senator and congressman respectively, can't be psyched about this Dallas Morning News editorial.

"What were they thinking?" asks the piece in its lead, pointing out that Cornyn and Sessions must have known when they accepted those trips that Stanford would have been looking to curry favor.

The editors conclude, a bit lamely:

Sessions and Cornyn have donated $9,000 of those funds to charity. They would be wise to donate the rest - and to use better judgment next time.

The paper might have added that Sessions would also be wise to ensure that his staff doesn't misinform reporters about the nature of the congressman's relationship with Stanford.

Still, it's a start.

House Democrats are now expected to take up their foreclosure-aid bill tomorrow, after negotiators reached a deal to modify the "cramdown" provision that would allow bankruptcy judges to modify the mortgage terms on primary residences.

A summary of the changes can be viewed on the second page of this document, sent out by three California Dems who led the effort to change the bill: Zoe Lofgren, Ellen Tauscher, and Dennis Cardoza.

As I said yesterday, whether these changes constitute an unacceptable watering-down of the cramdown plan depends on one's ideological and personal perspectives. One of the alterations -- allowing lenders to "claw back" a greater portion of the profits if a home is sold during bankruptcy proceedings -- would do little more than benefit banks.

But the other changes being made -- particularly requiring lenders to offer a workable loan modification before a homeowner enters bankruptcy and ensuring that any modification offer is consistent with a homeowner's income -- can hardly be classified as giveaways.

Rep. Brad Miller (D-NC), one of the leading proponents of the cramdown plan, told the AP that the banking lobby is "giving it everything they've got" but that he backs the new changes:

It would encourage lenders to make modifications and there would be consequences if they don't do it,

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) is vowing a rapid push on health reform this year, telling reporters yesterday that he would introduce a bipartisan health bill by June alongside Sen. Chuck Grassley (IA), the Finance panel's senior Republican.

Baucus and Grassley are known for working closely together, particularly on the 2007 reauthorization of the children's health insurance program (CHIP), which didn't make Grassley's fellow GOPers too happy (though the Iowan ultimately opposed the CHIP re-up that President Obama signed this year).

So Grassley enters the health care debate with a good deal of power -- and he's using it to warn Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to stay out of his and Baucus' way. When Grassley was asked this morning whether Baucus "answer[s] to" Reid on health care, he replied:

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Michael Steele is firing back at his critics inside the Republican Party, who privately complain that he's failed to properly organize the party, does too many gaffe-riddled interviews, and overall keeps everyone out of the loop. In fact, he says, this is just how he likes it.

In an interview with the Politico, Steele answered the naysayers:

"I know some folks in Washington feel that they're kind of on the outside of this -- that they don't have the day-to-day blow by blow of what I'm doing," he said. "And that's exactly how I like it. I want to be about the business of putting in place a good infrastructure that will enable me to go out and build a better brand, stronger brand, for the GOP. And I won't get there by tattle-telling every day what I'm doing."

He also had this to say: "If I told folks what I really thought, I'd probably be in a lot more trouble."

The first Democrat to signal his opposition to the Obama administration's $410 billion 2009 spending bill was Sen. Robert Menendez (NJ), who suggested that his vote might be in jeopardy if provisions loosening the Cuban trade embargo were kept in the measure.

But Menendez's complaints look like a drop in the bucket compared with the brewing rebellion among centrist Democrats who aren't sure they can support Obama's push to let the Bush tax cuts expire for the wealthiest Americans. Politico reports that 14 Dem senators (and Joe Lieberman, naturally) are meeting behind closed doors to discuss their discomfort with Obama's $3.55 trillion 2010 budget.

Before the budget even comes to a vote, however, the 2009 spending bill must be taken care of -- and one of those centrist Dems, Evan Bayh (IN), is urging Obama to veto the $410 billion measure in a Wall Street Journal op-ed today. From Bayh's piece (emphasis mine):

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Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN), who is the third-highest member of the House GOP in his role as conference chairman, appeared yesterday on CNN and quite loudly agreed with Rush Limbaugh -- he wants President Obama to fail:

Rick Sanchez: Do you want Barack Obama to fail?

Pence: Oh, come on, Rick. Nice try. I know what Rush Limbaugh meant. I actually listened to him about a month ago when he made this point on the air. I heard much of his speech on Saturday.

Look, everybody wants America to succeed. But everyone like me, like Rush Limbaugh and others who believes in limited government, who believes in conservative values, wants the policies that this administration is bringing forward -- higher taxes, a massive increase in government spending, a huge increase in the role of government in our daily lives, a departure from traditional values -- you bet, we want those policies to fail.

Because, Rick, we know big government, increases in debt, the micromanagement of the economy out of Washington, D.C. is a policy that will fail. It has failed throughout the last century, across the globe...

(Transcript via Nexis.)

Now let's think about this for a minute. When the stimulus bill was just on the verge of final passage, Rush Limbaugh said the following, still posted on his Web site: "And after this stimulus bill package passes, I want it to fail."

And Pence says here that he's a Rush-listener. So please, tell us what Rush really means when he says he wants Obama and his policies to fail.