ATMs a mystery to senatorWASHINGTON -- Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has been fighting unsuccessfully this week for a vote on his proposal to limit the fees charged for using the ATM of a financial institution other than your own. It might help if he showed some of his Senate colleagues the ATM in the basement of the Capitol, which prominently displays one of those “Fee Notice” signs that frustrate so many constituents. Customers with ATM cards not issued by the U.S. Senate Federal Credit Union face a $2 fee for withdrawals from the machine, on top of whatever fees their own banks charge.
Lawmakers walk past that ATM all the time on their way to votes on the Senate floor, but don't expect to see Sen. Ben Nelson stopping to grab some quick cash.
The Nebraska Democrat pleaded ignorance when asked this week whether Congress should cap ATM fees. Nelson said that while he's no fan of unnecessary fees, he's unfamiliar with the charges.
“I've never used an ATM, so I don't know what the fees are,” Nelson said, adding that he gets his cash from bank tellers, just not automatic ones. “It's true, I don't know how to use one.
“But I could learn how to do it just like I've . . . I swipe to get my own gas, buy groceries. I know about the holograms.”
By “holograms,” Nelson clarified that he meant the bar codes on products read by automatic scanners in the checkout lanes at stores such as Lowe's and Menard's.
“I go and get my own seating assignment on an airplane,” Nelson said. “I mean, I'm not without some skills. I just haven't had the need to use an ATM.”
Harkin has been trying to include his proposal in the financial regulatory bill and showed clear frustration during an unsuccessful attempt to bring up the amendment on the Senate floor late Tuesday.
He was pessimistic Wednesday about the chances that his amendment would see a vote, even though he has dropped his proposal's specific cap on the fees at 50 cents. Instead, regulators would require that fees bear a reasonable relationship to the costs of a given transaction.
The Iowa senator has questioned why people should be charged upwards of $5 to withdraw their own money. He said the cost of an ATM transaction is only about 36 cents, yet people often are charged $2 or $3 to take out $20.
“Legal thievery is what it is,” he said.
Banks and credit unions have suggested that a cap on ATM fees would lead to fewer machines being available and greater inconvenience for customers.
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., who said he has used ATMs five or fewer times in his life, likened the Harkin proposal to government price controls -- and he opposes it.
“I just worry about that kind of entry into the private sector,” said Johanns, a member of the Senate Banking Committee.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he hadn't thoroughly reviewed the proposal. Asked outside the Senate chamber whether he uses an ATM card, he said, “I've got a credit card, but I don't use it for cash.”
Harkin, however, uses his ATM card “once every couple weeks.”