AUGUSTA – In an era of supposed partisanship on Capitol Hill, for many political observers the month of May provided a little respite from the bickering and hollering that we have been accustomed to on C-SPAN.

Just days before the Senate was to vote on the regulatory reform bill, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., championed an amendment addressing debit and credit card swipe fees.

Much to the joy of millions of American small-business owners, the amendment passed 64-33, garnering the support of 17 Republicans, including our own Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.

Swipe fees are charged to businesses and consumers whenever an individual pays with a credit or debit card.

Because most Americans expect businesses of all shapes and sizes to provide them with the choice of paying with plastic, businesses in Maine and across the country have embraced this technology.

However, the main concern is the price that we have to pay for the convenience of accepting plastic. As most small-business owners in Maine will understand, if you face competition you have options. In some cases you can out-maneuver your competitors by lowering your prices or perhaps investing in training for employees.

But simply put, if my prices are too high, my customers have the liberty of going elsewhere. Either way, you have choices because the market allows you to do so — that is unless you’ve experienced the credit card fix.

At present the electronic payments market is dominated by two players — Visa and MasterCard — who account for more than 80 percent of the market. In most instances, people would describe such a market fix as a duopoly or a cartel.

Given their stranglehold over the market, the credit card cartel has been unilaterally raising prices on small businesses across the country without fear of repercussions or losing market share. This type of arrangement is anathema to those of us used to fierce competition.

In fact, because Visa and MasterCard give banks a higher rate of return whenever someone swipes their card, the cost of electronic payments has surged, meaning that small businesses in Maine have less money to hire new workers or invest in their communities.

These inflated fees mean that businesses have had no option but to pass on these costs to consumers. Therefore you’re paying well above inflation for goods and services — even if you use cash.

What’s more, according to the respected Nilson Report, just 13 percent of each swipe fee goes toward covering the cost of the transaction, with the rest going toward bonuses, profit and rewards cards programs.

In any other instance, if a supplier of mine hiked up their costs threefold so they could enjoy a larger profit margin, I would pick up the phone and call a competitor. Not so with the credit card companies.

What the swipe fee amendment does — like other segments of the economy — allows for oversight of swipe fees. It also allows merchants to offer their customers discounts if they pay with cash.

So, if you walk into any store in Maine, the owner can offer you a discount on inventory, but not on your payment method.

Sounds reasonable, right? If passed, small businesses in Maine will have the right to offer cash discounts.

Although the swipe fee amendment exempts financial institutions with less than $10 billion in assets — meaning that 99.7 percent of credit unions and community banks in America will be exempt, including all in Maine — the banks and credit card companies have fought tooth and nail to rip the swipe fee amendment out of the bill.

Thus far, they have failed. However, because the bill has now passed the House and awaits a Senate vote, banks and credit card companies are not just fighting to remove the swipe fee amendment, but to kill the entire bill! Snowe and Collins will play a crucial role as the Senate resumes after the Independence Day recess.

Both senators know that when Wall Street was demanding a bailout from the American taxpayer, small businesses were still working to hire employees and grow the economy.

Unlike Wall Street, small businesses in Maine never asked for any favors or special treatment. Instead all we have ever asked for is a level playing field so we can continue to grow and make this state an attractive place to do business.