Two prominent lawmakers are questioning banking regulators' willingness to enforce laws that say banks cannot require customers to purchase one service in order to receive another.
Reps. John D. Dingell, D.-Mich., and Edward J. Markey, D.Mass., have asked the General Accounting Office to evaluate whether the so-called anti-tying laws should instead be enforced by the Justice Department.
Their request was spelled out in an Aug. 8 letter to the GAO, the investigating arm of Congress, that was released last week.
They are the chairmen, respectively, of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and its telecommunications and finance subcommittee. Both panels oversee securities laws.
The lawmakers' call for a comprehensive review of the antitying laws appeared to have been prompted by allegations that a bank unit of NationsBank Corp. had improperly told a client that it would make a commercial loan only if the client .also gave NationsBank additional business placing securities.
The congressmen also took aim at a recent Federal Reserve decision to relax its rules enforcing the laws.
The Fed ruled in December that First Union Corp. could give bank customers discounts on brokerage accounts offered by a bank affiliate, and later extended the exemption tO all banks.
The lawmakers asked the GAO to investigate whether "actions taken to encourage greater cross-marketing impinged upon the rigor with which the bank regulators have enforced" the anti-tying statutes.
In addition, they asked the GAO to find out "how effective have the federal banking regulators been in deterring, identifying, and punishing violations."
In a separate letter, the lawmakers asked Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and Comptroller of the Currency Eugene A. Ludwig for a status report on their response to the allegations against NationsBank.
The probe underscores Congress' discomfort with banks' push to sell a broad range of financial products said Charles M Horn, an attorney at Mayer, Brown & Plait in Washington. The concern is that banks could misuse their economic might to force customers into relationships they don't want. Federal Reserve Officials declined to comment on the lawmakers' requests. A spokeswoman for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency said that the agency takes seriously its responsibilities for enforcing the anti-tying laws. "We have conducted investigations to make sure the law is being enforced," said the spokeswoman, Leonora S. Cross. She said the OCC will respond "very soon" to the lawmakers request.