May 6, 1998

Over the past weeks, I've learned about proposed bankruptcy-reform legislation in the House of Representatives that could undermine the ability of some parents to collect child support. I have no quarrel with responsible bankruptcy reform, but I do quarrel with aspects of the bill that would force single parents to compete for their child support payments with big banks trying to collect credit card debt. The welfare of our children must come first.

Let me tell you about a hypothetical family: Jan and Simon have three children, ages 1, 3 and 5. Simon is the manager of a small shoe store with an annual salary of $33,000. Jan is a full-time homemaker.

Sadly, they divorce, and Simon agrees to pay child support. Unfortunately, within a year, he's involved in a serious car accident and loses his job. Jan, struggling to raise their three children, stops receiving child support checks. Unable to find work, and behind on his bills, Simon files for bankruptcy protection. Jan is just one of his creditors.

Under current bankruptcy law, Simon is obligated to pay his taxes, his student loans and his child support and alimony. But under the legislation being considered by the House, certain of his credit card debts would also be mandatory. In Simon's case, as parties vie in the fierce competition for limited funds, child support payments and credit card obligations would be pitted against each other.

Unfortunately, Jan and Simon's story is all too common. This year alone, 1.4 million families will file for protection from unmanageable consumer debt under our bankruptcy laws. This represents an increase of about 400 percent since 1980. While some reform is in order, any accompanying threat to child support and alimony payments is not.

This administration has worked too long and too hard to improve child support collection to see it now threatened. The President has cracked down on non-paying parents and strengthened enforcement. Since 1992, collections are up 68 percent.

Today, families that file under Chapter 7 are relieved of certain debts, but as in Simon's case, they must still repay others, including taxes, educational loans and family and child support obligations. Many also try to continue making home mortgage and car payments. They leave court relieved of some debt but certainly not debt-free.

The aspects of the House bill that concern me would elevate certain types of credit card debt to the same high priority as taxes, school loans and family support. The challenge for Congress is to pass a law that is balanced and fair to both the creditor and the debtor -- protecting families and children while reducing abuse of the bankruptcy laws.

The challenge for our economy is to preserve access to credit while making sure that eligible consumers are educated, responsible and protected from unscrupulous practices. It wasn't too long ago that large segments of our society were denied credit. At the time, it was important to provide people with this valuable economic tool, but now, as we all know, credit is readily available.

How many times in the past few months has your phone rung during dinner? You excuse yourself, leave the table and pick up the receiver, only to be greeted by a cheery voice on the other end of the line happily offering you a "pre-approved credit card." Or how many times have you seen or heard advertisements encouraging people with bad credit to borrow more?

For many people in financial straits -- for whatever reason -- such offers may sound too good to be true. Unfortunately, down the line, too many people find they didn't comprehend how much they would owe and don't have the means to repay the additional debt.

The average bankruptcy filer in this country earns less than $18,000 a year after taxes. And, now, credit card companies even target college and high school students.

Most people use their credit cards responsibly and pay their bills reliably. But, for many Americans -- like Jan and Simon -- the difference between fiscal security and financial ruin is just one calamity away. A divorce, a lost job, an accident or a child's illness can rob a family of its financial security and eventually lead to bankruptcy court.

As members of Congress grapple with bankruptcy reform, they must deal with the problems that face both creditors and debtors. But one issue is clear. Any effort to reform the bankruptcy system must protect the obligations of parents to support their children.