WASHINGTON - During last year's Whitewater hearings, Rep. Spencer Bachus found himself under fire from then chairman Henry B. Gonzalez as "an obstructive force."

Rep. Bachus' crime was to question the chairman's rulings. After all, Rep. Gonzalez noted, the two-term lawmaker was a mere Republican, a member of the panel's minority party.

Yet with the big change on Capitol Hill, the tables have turned dramatically for the 47-year-old lawmaker. The massive influx of freshmen into the House Banking Committee propelled him from an insignificant minority member - he ranked 17th out of 20 Republicans last year - to a senior member of the majority party and chairman of the general oversight subcommittee.

The irony is not lost on Rep. Bachus.

"Here I am, less than a year after being cautioned by Gonzalez, chairing the committee that will conduct the next Resolution Trust Corp. oversight hearing," Rep. Bachus says. "It's quite a change, especially after being in the minority for two years and having almost no input."

With the RTC scheduled to sunset on Dec. 31, Rep. Bachus sees a variety of issues requiring attention from his subcommittee, including employee morale at the agency.

"RTC employees know they have eight months to go, so people are constantly jumping ship over there," says Rep. Bachus, who expects to hold an RTC oversight hearing later this month. "At the same time, you're talking about a multimillion-dollar operation, which is scary."

While Rep. Bachus' panel will grapple with this and other RTC issues, such as whether to shut down the agency early, bankers back in his district headquarters of Birmingham, Ala., have been successful in bending the lawmaker's ear to their more pressing concerns.

John W. Woods, president and chief executive of AmSouth Bancorp., says that Rep. Bachus has been more than amenable to AmSouth's suggestions. Topping the list for Mr. Woods is the Community Reinvestment Act.

"We've had an outstanding CRA record, but it's still a very intensive process," says Mr. Woods, whose bank holds a total of $16.5 billion in four states. "Rep. Bachus comes in and visits with us, and we have a close working relationship with his staff. I think he has been very effective."

Indeed, Rep. Bachus says the four large regional banks based in Birmingham are the main reason he requested a seat on House Banking after he was elected in 1992. And it's obvious that their message is getting through to the lawmaker.

"Banks have to jump over so many regulatory hurdles, and I guess the granddaddy of them all is this Community Reinvestment Act," says Rep. Bachus, who favors repealing the law. "We've got a budget deficit, and in my mind, to get out of it we're going to have to let the free-enterprise system rev up.

"I see most of CRA as a burden. It holds back profits, and I consider profits a good thing," Rep. Bachus adds. "There are small banks in some of my small counties, and CRA just makes life miserable for them."

Recent financial disasters like the huge derivatives losses suffered by Britain's Barings PLC have left Rep. Bachus uncertain about another major issue facing the House Banking Committee: financial industry modernization.

Last year, Rep. Bachus says he would have been fully behind the proposal sponsored by Rep. Richard H. Baker, which would allow common ownership of insured banks and commercial firms.

While he still leans in the direction of the Louisiana Republican's bill, Rep. Bachus says that the Barings episode and other events led him to be a little more cautious.

"You look at the international situation, and I'm not sure that some of these separations will protect the very institutions that are crying for change," he says.

"I'm just like anybody else in or out of Congress and in the banking community or in the general population. I read the papers. You have to be affected by that."

Rep. Bachus says he is more than happy to have the bumper crop of GOP freshman serving with him on the House Banking Committee. All of the Republicans on the oversight subcommittee, minus Rep. Bachus and Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., are freshmen.

And besides the fact that he says he finds them "philosophically grounded" and "mission oriented," he also admits that their arrival was key to boosting him to his current post.

"I've got a real warm spot for the freshman class of the 104th Congress," Rep. Bachus said with a smile. "They put me in a leadership position, a position in which I will be much more effective."

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