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Editorial Cartoon

One of the wonders of today's political world is the stranglehold that so-called payday and automobile-title lenders have on our political leaders.

Thousands of reports over the years have documented how these lenders take advantage of the most financially vulnerable people in society and hook them on a never-ending series of loans that can cost them more than 500 percent in interest.

In Wisconsin it doesn't seem to matter which party is in power. A few years back when Democrats controlled the Legislature, a bill that would have finally placed some control on the industry was thwarted when one of the key legislators refused to report the bill to the floor. Turns out he was romantically involved with one of the payday lenders' main lobbyists.

But it's the Republicans who have been the industry's biggest backers and the money in their campaign coffers helps explain why.

One title loan company alone has contributed nearly $90,000 to GOP legislators in Wisconsin during the past decade.

So it wasn't that big a surprise earlier this month when a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story revealed that the speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly, Robin Vos, embarked on a free trip to London along with lobbyists for LoanMax, whose parent company is the source of the lavish campaign donations.

Speaker Vos insisted that he never discussed any legislation with lobbyists on the trip. He insisted he followed all ethics rules and the only reason he was on the all-expenses-paid excursion was his love for the late Winston Churchill. Sure, he added, he has sponsored bills to loosen state regulations for payday lenders and title loans, but that has nothing to do with campaign donations. It's just that he believes these lenders are doing a service by making loans to people who would otherwise not be able to get them.

While Vos faces no scrutiny over the trip, the speaker of Ohio's House hasn't been that lucky. The FBI announced it was looking into the four-day excursion and Speaker Cliff Rosenberger decided that stepping down would be his best bet.

But these bottom-feeding lenders don't just hold sway at the state level. They were on the verge of some stiff regulation by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau late last year before its director, Richard Cordray, stepped down amid pressure from the Trump administration.

In what amounted to a bureaucratic coup, Donald Trump named his White House budget director, Mick Mulvaney, a former tea party congressman and a rabid critic of the consumer bureau, to take Cordray's place while still serving as budget director. One of his first acts was to summarily kill a rule to put checks on payday lending practices that was five years in the making.

As Sen. Elizabeth Warren has written, "Mr. Mulvaney has undermined the bureau's work on behalf of consumers and has repeatedly failed to comply with legal mandates, while the Republicans who control Congress have refused to use the tools available to them to rein him in."

Since Mulvaney took over, the bureau has not issued an enforcement action against any financial company and has dropped cases against payday lenders, plus jettisoned the five-years-in-the-making regulation. And, Mulvaney insists he's just begun.

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But, once again, why are we surprised?

Like Robin Vos here in Wisconsin, Mick Mulvaney has other motivations. During his six years representing South Carolina in the House, Mulvaney collected a cool $60,000 in contributions from the payday loan industry.

Guess we shouldn't really need to wonder why the industry that tethers low-income working Americans to loans they will likely never be able to pay off is such a success in today's political world.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel. 

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Dave is editor emeritus of The Capital Times.