At first glance, Sen. Robert F. Bennett seems a curious choice to be a technology guru.
A deliberate speaker whose genteel demeanor and ambling gait are distinctive on Capitol Hill, the 64-year-old Utah Republican hardly fits the profile of a plugged-in computerphile.
But first impressions are deceiving. There is enough that is cutting- edge about Sen. Bennett to qualify him for the chairmanship of the Senate Banking Committee's new financial services and technology subcommittee.
A former Inc. magazine "Rocky Mountain Region Entrepreneur of the Year," the first-term senator hails from a state that has passed some of the country's most innovative banking laws. Also, Utah is home to a flock of technology companies, including Novell Inc., Iomega Corp., and Corel Inc.'s Wordperfect software development operation.
Yet Sen. Bennett denies he is any kind of technology wizard. He claims he got the new committee assignment only because no one else wanted it.
"With all the things we're looking at in terms of regulation for banks, one thing we're not paying attention to is the impact of technological change," he said.
Sen. Bennett, who likes to lampoon the long-winded speechmaking and grandstanding that frequently dominate Senate hearings, seems to place little stock in the prestige that comes with running a subcommittee. Nevertheless, he takes his new duties seriously.
"We need to consider what are the implications of transmitting huge sums or securities electronically," he said. "You have to be sure there's protection for individuals and the financial system."
In a recent interview, the lawmaker rattled off the initial issues he hopes to take up in hearings soon:
?Improving security for on-line transactions.
?Reducing check processing delays.
?Safeguarding a country's monetary system against capital flight.
?Examining the impact of Internet trading on brokers and stock exchanges.
"These are the issues Congress should have institutional memory about," he said.
Stridently pro-business, Sen. Bennett said he is in no hurry for his panel to pass new laws regulating electronic commerce. He wants to allow time for the marketplace to sort things out.
"I'm a militant free-trader who believes in the power of markets," he said.
Though still low in seniority, Sen. Bennett has become a key adviser to the Senate brass. In 1995, Robert Dole, then the majority leader, tapped him to lead negotiations with the Clinton administration over the bailout of the Mexican economy.
Sen. Bennett was also named head of the Senate Republican Health Care Task force. In January, Trent Lott, the majority leader, appointed him chairman of a task force on rewriting the Senate's many arcane and cumbersome rules.
"He's very thoughtful and very sharp," said Peter L. Blocklin, Senate lobbyist for the American Bankers Association. "He can apply practical, common-sense approaches to what a lot of people would consider complicated issues."
Though patient and soft-spoken, Sen. Bennett isn't afraid to play political hardball. Determined to restore strong leadership to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Sen. Bennett used to his ties to Sen. Dole to thwart Sen. Alfonse D'Amato's efforts to derail Ricki Helfer's nomination as chairman in 1994.
"Sen. Bennett played a key behind-the-scenes role in getting Helfer confirmed" over the Banking Committee chairman's objections, said Kenneth L. Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers Association of America.
Sen. Bennett brings to his technology job a rare mix of business success and lengthy government service.
He made his mark in the business world during 13 years heading several companies, including Franklin Quest, known for its day planners and time- management seminars. During his tenure, which ended in 1990, the company grew from a tiny four-person shop to a corporation with more than $90 million in annual sales and 1,000 employees.
In Washington, he served as staff member for several lawmakers in the 1960s, including his father, four-term Sen. Wallace F. Bennett. During the Nixon Administration, he served two years as chief congressional liaison at the U.S. Department of Transportation.
After that, the younger Mr. Bennett was president of Washington-based Robert Mullin Public Relations in Washington.
By putting his business savvy and government experience to use on Capitol Hill, he has even won praise from Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who lauded Sen. Bennett at the lawmaker's second annual electronic commerce conference in March.
"He's just about my favorite senator," gushed the Fed chief. "He's the only one I learn things from."
Sen. Bennett's pro-business legislative record has naturally earned the admiration of industry executives, including Philip J. Purcell, chairman and chief executive officer of Dean Witter, Discover & Co., which has an industrial loan company and credit card operation in Utah. "His tireless efforts" to help industry have succeeded "because of the business credibility he brings to issues," Mr. Purcell said.
Mr. Purcell praised Sen. Bennett's effort last year to lift the 7% annual growth cap on the limited-purpose banks that Dean Witter and a host of other financial conglomerates operate.
Sen. Bennett also played a key role in crafting last year's securities litigation reform bill, particularly provisions that would limit frivolous "strike suits" by plaintiffs' lawyers.
A consistent optimist, he predicts Congress will pass financial reform legislation during the next two years.
"I think Sen. D'Amato is going to focus on this more," he said. "In the last Congress, of course, he was distracted by Whitewater and House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach made it clear he was not going to allow anything to move forward that did not meet his criteria. A lot of us on the Senate side said, 'Why should we go to all the trouble?' "
Though he has been content to let Sen. D'Amato take the lead in drafting the legislation, Sen. Bennett is expected to fight hard for a sweeping reform bill.
He said he favors Sen. D'Amato's approach to financial reform, which allows banks and nonfinancial firms to mix but requires firewalls to protect banking operations.
"My instincts say, 'Let the competition begin,'" Sen. Bennett said. "I would want to remove as many barriers to competition as I can."