WASHINGTON - Robert A. Rusbuldt has handed the banking industry a series of legislative defeats in his nine years of lobbying for the Independent Insurance Agents of America.
But now that Republicans rule Congress, Mr. Rusbuldt is on the verge of scoring his biggest victory: freezing the authority of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency to expand banks' insurance powers.
Mr. Rusbuldt has used his ties with GOP lawmakers - forged while Republicans were in the minority - to convince heavyweights like House Speaker Newt Gingrich to clamp down on the Comptroller's office.
The "Comptroller's moratorium," as the measure is known, is attached to a House bill designed to reduce the regulatory burden on banks. The measure is awaiting a vote on the House floor; the Senate Banking Committee is expected to consider similar legislation in September.
Despite Mr. Rusbuldt's high-level connections, he concedes that the future did not seem bright for his group when Congress convened in January.
With the legislative and executive branches backing new affiliations among financial services providers, it looked as though insurance agents were on the path to extinction.
After the election, "everybody was saying, 'You guys are going to be in trouble in this Congress,'" Mr. Rusbuldt said.
But he realized his group could take advantage of another calling card of the new majority: sending power back to the states.
"What the pundits failed to see is that this Congress not only believes in free markets and free enterprise, but it also believes in states' rights," Mr. Rusbuldt said.
Mr. Rusbuldt, 38, told House leaders that the Comptroller's office, by expanding national bank powers, was overriding state insurance regulators and preempting state insurance laws.
"Let's face it: Members of Congress can't say we are going to empower the states, shut down the Commerce Department, and then watch as an unelected federal regulator runs roughshod over state insurance laws," Mr. Rusbuldt said. "So the states-rights issue won out."
Mr. Rusbuldt's friendship with Speaker Gingrich has paid off particularly well for the agents.
The Georgia Republican reportedly told House leaders in June that, if they wanted to move any banking legislation through Congress, "you have to take care of the agents."
Mr. Rusbuldt explained his influence this way: "When Republicans didn't count for much in this town," he developed a "relationship of trust" with Rep. Gingrich.
"He would say, "Bob, take off your hat as an insurance lobbyist, and put on your Republican hat,'" Mr. Rusbuldt recalled. "He'd proceed to ask me questions about things like Medicare or the budget, things that had nothing to do with insurance.
"Now that Republicans are in the majority, their first inclination when they need advice and counsel is to go to the people that were there when times were tough," he said.
One of Mr. Rusbuldt's early ties to the GOP was forged 16 years ago while he was working on his master's degree at American University here.
He met then Rep. Carroll Campbell, who was serving in Congress and attending night school. The South Carolina Republican asked Mr. Rusbuldt to come work for him.
Mr. Campbell later was elected governor of his home state, and Mr. Rusbuldt, who had been his aide on the House Ways and Means Committee, joined the American Insurance Association as a lobbyist. The independent agents hired him in May 1986.
The walls of Mr. Rusbuldt's office, just two blocks from the Capitol, are covered with pictures of the lobbyist swinging golf clubs and shooting hoops with Republicans like former President George Bush.
Mr. Rusbuldt's professed basketball skill may lead him to the biggest face-off yet between the banking industry and the insurance agents.
"Talk is on the Hill that he fancies himself as some sort of basketball player," said Marty Farmer, a lobbyist for Barnett Banks Inc., who savors nothing more than a good game of one-on-one. "We may settle it on the court some day."