WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate on May 18 tabled a proposed 50¢ cap on consumer service fees at automatic teller machines, proposed by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) as an amendment to new U.S. banking legislation. Harkin's amendment and a few others were set aside without a vote as the Senate moved toward final action on the main bill, S. 3217, the "Restoring American Financial Stability Act of 2010."
The measure, informally known as the Wall Street Reform Bill, passed the Senate on May 20 by a vote of 59-39 without the original Harkin ATM amendment and without a second, softer version that Harkin substituted on the day of the vote. The modified amendment did not specify a 50¢ cap but only called for "reasonable" fees.
The banking bill is now in a House-Senate conference committee for reconciliation before a final vote by both chambers. In theory, some version of the ATM amendment could be added to the bill at some later stage in the process before it goes the President's desk. If not then, opponents said Harkin's idea was likely to reappear in connection with some other legislation at a later time.
Under current regulations, banks and independent ATM operators may charge consumers any service fee for using any of the nation's estimated 425,000 cash dispensing machines. Current fees range from 50¢ to $6 for a $100 cash withdrawal. Bankrate.com said the average nationwide ATM fee is $3.54.
Harkin had argued that ATM owners pay only 36¢ a transaction, so charging consumers anything above 50¢ was a rip-off. Industry members countered, saying transaction fees offset their expenses -- ATMs cost anywhere from $9,000 to $50,000 to purchase and $12,000 or more a year to operate.
The Amusement and Music Operators Association had urged members to sign an online petition against the Harkin amendment (described at atmia.com/unitedstates), saying that it would "directly impact AMOA members that have ATM machines [sic] on their routes" and would "devastate an industry that includes thousands of small businesses around the country."
AMOA executive vice-president Jack Kelleher also said in his weekly "Off the Top" e-newsletter that AMOA's government affairs team, along with the banking and other industries, are "actively attempting to push back this proposed amendment."
AMOA was just one voice in a much larger coalition opposing ATM fee limits. Leading opponents included the ATM Industry Association, the American Bankers Association and Electronic Funds Transfer Association.
Several older senators, notably Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE), came under ridicule from bloggers during informal debate on Harkin's amendment, because they admitted they never or rarely used ATM cards and did not understand how ATMs worked.
Meanwhile, privacy advocates are unhappy with the Senate bill because it would create a new government agency, the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, and authorize it to "gather information and activities of persons operating in consumer financial markets," including account holders' names, addresses, transaction records and account balances. The data could be used "for any purpose" and could be made publicly available upon request.