Newest freshman Bonamici brings focus on protecting consumers to Hill

During the special election to replace former Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.), The Oregonian compared the campaign between now-Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) and centrist Republican Rob Cornilles to the Massachusetts Senate race between centrist Republican Sen. Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren.

But the similarities between Warren and Bonamici run deeper than an election. Like Warren, Bonamici’s past works focused on protecting consumers. Bonamici said she finds the comparisons between her and Warren “hugely flattering.”

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She started her legal career at the Federal Trade Commission working on consumer lending protections such as truth in lending, equal credit opportunity, fair credit reporting and mortgage fraud.

“Consumer protection can help rebuild consumer confidence, and some people say consumer protection is anti-business — I don’t see it that way,” Bonamici said. “Consumer protection levels the playing field. When you have a business that does not operate fairly, honestly and play by the rules, they get a competitive advantage, putting those who are following the rules at a competitive disadvantage.”

When serving in both houses of the Oregon legislature, Bonamici continued her work on lending practices, especially for small businesses. She was chairwoman of the first consumer protection committee in the Oregon Senate.

“I saw an impact in Oregon when I worked with our state economic development department to streamline the requirements for entrepreneurs and small businesses to apply for capital for loans and to recapitalize those loan funds,” Bonamici said. “It really made a difference across the state and especially in rural areas. …We’ve lost a lot of jobs in our timber industry, so especially in rural areas, small businesses are really the backbone of the economy in some of those communities.”

Bonamici’s bill, the Access to Business Capital Act, helped more of Oregon’s small-business owners access loans through a recapitalization program.

Bonamici also worked on predatory and payday-lending practices with now-U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).

“Suzanne took her seat in the Oregon House the same year I became Speaker,” Merkley said. “Suzanne was an integral part of our team, and her hard work and dedication were apparent to everyone from the get-go. Her commitment to education and consumer protection, her intellect and her diligence allowed her to hit the ground running in the Oregon House.”

In the U.S. House, leadership placed Bonamici on the Budget and Science, Space and Technology committees.

“My focus is the economy because it’s really tied to everything,” Bonamici said. “When the economy is booming, people are buying houses, and the construction industry and the housing industry — it just makes such a big difference. There is interconnectedness on all of those issues.”

On her first day in Congress, Bonamici signed on as a co-sponsor of the Small Business Lending Enhancement Act, which increases the cap on what credit unions can lend to small businesses from 12.25 percent of their capital to 27.5 percent.

“One of the things that I worked on as a state legislator was helping entrepreneurs and small businesses get access to capital, and that’s one of the things that I made a priority here,” Bonamici said. “The small-business lending-cap bill will permit credit unions to do more. They already do some lending to their member businesses — this will allow them to do more small-business lending.”

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan briefed Bonamici right away on the multi-bank mortgage settlement.

“There are still some gaps in [the settlement] and there are still people who won’t qualify,” Bonamici said. “I’m very interested in preventive measures, making sure that people have the skills to stay out of these complex transactions.

“One aspect that I really appreciate about the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is the increased emphasis on personal finance education. As consumer credit products have become more complex, it’s even more important that people have the skills they need to be able to ask the right questions, understand what they’re getting, what they’re signing up for, when they enter into a transaction.”

Bonamici said she’s also been tracking other financial legislation.

“I know there are negotiations on the Volcker Rule going on in the Senate. I will be looking at that very carefully,” Bonamici said. “[I’m concerned with the] whole issue of the Glass-Stegall Act that was repealed and then sort of opened up the market for more complex transactions, and that led to the situation we’re in now.”

But Bonamici already knows she disagrees with a member of her delegation — Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) — and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on their new Medicare plan.

Wyden and Ryan’s plan would allow seniors to opt out of Medicare in exchange for a voucher — a plan most Democrats oppose.

“I applaud people for reaching across the aisle, but we need to look at the merits of each proposal, and I would have concerns about that one because I don’t see it as a cost-containment measure,” Bonamici said.

As the only woman in the Oregon delegation, Bonamici said it’s nice for the Beaver State to have more diversity in its representation.

“I have to say it was really exciting to have so many young women helping with the campaign, [that were] so excited to have a woman’s voice in the delegation,” Bonamici said. “That being said, it can’t be the only thing people look at. I want people to vote for me or support me or want me to be here because I’m qualified, not because I’m a woman.”

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