Rep. Carolyn Maloney is an unlikely banking industry ally.

The New York Democrat is a member of the House Banking Committee's core of liberal Democrats-a group noted for boosting bankers' community lending and consumer protection obligations.

Rep. Maloney, however, has leveraged her credibility with the liberal wing of the committee into support for several key pro-industry initiatives.

"It's always helpful to have someone viewed as a liberal Democrat who is sympathetic to the business community," said Cory Strupp, lobbyist for J.P. Morgan & Co. "That makes it O.K. for other liberal Democrats to work with you on those things too."

Since coming to Congress in 1993, Rep. Maloney has pushed the Federal Reserve Board to open its check processing operation to private competition and lined up critical support among freshmen lawmakers for the Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking and Branching Efficiency Act of 1994.

In 1995 she helped build Democratic support for a proposal that eliminated federal deposit insurance premiums when reserves reached $1.25 per $100 of insured deposits-despite the objections of senior lawmakers Rep. John LaFalce and Rep. Bruce Vento.

"Many Democrats on the Banking Committee were asking, 'Jeepers, why are we giving money back to the banks?'" said Rick Maurano, the panel's minority deputy staff director. "But she was quick to answer that the money belonged to them."

Rep. Maloney lobbied most of the Democratic contingent one-on-one, insisting that the money would make its way back into communities as credit.

Unlike most lawmakers, Rep. Maloney isn't upset that regulators and the courts have expanded the powers of national banks.

In fact, she enthusiastically backs efforts to expand bank powers, such as the Fed's decision to increase revenue limits on banks' section 20 securities affiliates.

"When you're taking on a huge area that impacts greatly on the economy and people's lives, what's wrong with taking a piecemeal approach?" she asked in an interview.

"Otherwise, you don't know the ramifications. We have to make sure that what is the most competitive and best banking system in the world remains that way."

Congress is trying to accomplish too much, too fast with legislation that would let banks merge with securities and insurance firms, she said.

Rather than allowing affiliations between banks and securities firms, she said, Congress should urge the Fed to raise the section 20 limits in a couple of years. "Maybe we should have a cap at 30%," she said.

"She recognizes that banking and financial services are a critical part of the New York economy," said Chase Manhattan Corp. lobbyist L. Thomas Block. "Though she doesn't always vote the way we would hope, she's willing to hear our side on every bill that comes before the Banking Committee."

"Banking is incredibly important in my district," Rep. Maloney said. "It's the banking capital of the world."

Following in the footsteps of Texas Democrat Henry Gonzalez, Rep. Maloney also has been a check on the Fed's authority.

In the past year, she has helped block a Fed plan to give banks an extra day to clear local checks, accused the agency of interfering with a unionization drive, and sponsored legislation that would stop the central bank from undercutting private companies that compete with its check processing operation.

Rep. Maloney said she has no intention of letting up on the "superfluous power" of the board and the Fed's 12 reserve banks.

"They play by their own rules," she said.

After months of denials, Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan admitted to Rep. Maloney in September that the central bank subsidizes its check cashing activities.

With Rep. Gonzalez retiring, Rep. Maloney will be one of the Fed's biggest challengers in Congress.

She not only is an increasingly influential member of the House Banking Committee, which has oversight authority for the central bank, but also sits on the Joint Economic Committee, a congressional panel with responsibility for keeping tabs on monetary policy.

But Rep. Maloney doesn't consider herself a Fed-basher. Tough oversight of the Fed is one of her duties, she explained. "I don't consider it keeping the heat on, I consider it doing my job."

In fact, she gives high marks to Mr. Greenspan for the board's anti- inflationary monetary policy.

"We've had conservative growth for many years now, and we've reduced the deficit," she said.

Rep. Maloney complained that she must often voice the complaints about the Fed raised by the country's biggest bank holding companies, many of which are based in her Manhattan district. The companies, she said, are afraid to criticize their regulator directly.

"I have to speak for them," she said.

Though Rep. Gonzalez often labored alone in his quests to force the Fed to announce interest rate changes quickly and to publish minutes of monetary policy committees, Rep. Maloney said she and others in Congress are joining the fight against the central bank's secretiveness.

Her check processing bill, which would force the Fed to disclose and break down its costs for sorting, routing, and transporting paper checks, has five co-sponsors.

The 49-year-old mother of two daughters served 10 years on the New York City Council before defeating seven-term Republican Rep. Bill Green in 1992.

The former teacher and school board administrator won her congressional seat by pledging to reverse years of declining federal aid to New York City.

She said she is proudest of a law she drafted that will help the government collect $10 billion of overdue bills through 2002. Under her Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1996, bills more than six months past due are turned over to the Treasury Department.

With better management, the government can bring in more funds to help people, she said. "I see more money for teachers, health care, and police officers."

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