While highly speculative, is it now probable that John Thune, Tim Johnson, and Stephanie Herseth will spend an indeterminate period in purgatory?
Will they join 90 percent of the Republicans and 55 percent of the Democrats in Congress who voted for the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act, that historic credit card industry sell-out that became law last month? Will they be indicted by a heavenly grand jury for the collective sin of "Disrespecting Widowhood"?
Or an alternative count of "Loving Citibank More than Widows?"
These questions emerged during senior legal helpline contacts with two widows.
"My husband died nine years ago, leaving behind $64,000 of credit card debt. I had a stroke five years ago. I'm living on a Social Security disability," said a 63-year-old helpline caller. "The bill collectors started leaving me alone a few years ago, but now they are back with a vengeance."
Last week, on a flight to Vancouver to attend an international elderlaw conference, I sat next to another widow. She is also 63, diabetic and without health insurance. "If I can hang on another year until Medicare kicks in I will be all right."
Her husband died five years ago, at 59, after a short bout with cancer. Since then, she has been making payments on a credit card balance of $16,000, "which never goes down.
"I tell them I don't have any money, but they keep sending notices and calling," she said. "They're driving me to a nervous breakdown."
She is being particularly harassed by a lawyer, who announced that he is not an "ordinary bill collector, but a lawyer with direct access to the courts." He told her to get the money from a family member. I advised that if he calls again to refer him to me.
These renewed assaults on impoverished widows is a byproduct of a public policy that permits the credit card industry to engage in opportunistic and usurious lending practices that in a more respectful era of American politics would have been outright "loansharking."
The law has unleashed the collection pit-bulls, who use telephones as tools of extortion: "Pay up or we will continue the calls, the notices, the continuous harassment."
The law has emboldened the industry and its collectors, who are reaching back to dust off accounts that had been previously written off as bad debt. It is being used to intimidate and frighten. Our congresspersons have fallen into bad company.
(Pro bono legal information, advice and assistance is available to persons 55 and older through the USD Senior Legal Helpline, 1-800-747-1895; firstname.lastname@example.org)