HOUSTON - When he ran for president four years ago, George Bush had only the faintest hint of a record on banking issues. Since then, he has created what may be the most extensive audit trail of any President this century.
But as he prepares to accept renomination here Thursday night, some bankers are asking themselves whether that record warrants a second term.
While the President gets high marks for tackling the savings and loan crisis head on, bankers have a laundry list of complaints. Among them: soaring deposit insurance premiums, harsher regulations that they see as punishment for the S&L crisis, and increasingly burdensome red tape.
Indeed, some respected industry analysts regard the Bush administration's record on banking issues as almost entirely negative.
"Most of the industry feels it is significantly worse off," said Karen Shaw, president of the Institute for Strategy Development and an informal adviser to the Clinton campaign on banking issues.
"They are paying deposit insurance premiums three times higher than they were," she said. "They face a regulatory burden that is tantamount to nationalization. They face day-to-day examinations on terms that they consider intrusive. And most of their best markets are moving to nonbanks."
Even those closest to the President admit banks have suffered during the Bush years.
"There is no question about it, we are worse off today," said Thomas L. Ashley, president of the Association of Bank Holding Companies, which represents large banking concerns.
A Republican Seethes
Community bankers, many of whom believe the administration pursued a big-bank agenda last year, are particularly angry.
Mr. Bush's term has left community bankers like O. Jay Tomson of Iowa feeling torn. Though a lifelong Republican, he is still seething over the administration's treatment of community banks in 1989. The administration, he said, not only tried to cut back deposit insurance coverage but also "stiff-armed" small banks, cutting them out of the process.
"I said then that I would never vote for him again," said Mr. Tomson, president of Citizens National Bank of Charles City. Since then, he admitted, he has begun to have second thoughts.
Congress Blamed, Too
Mr. Ashley, who has been a close friend of Mr. Bush since their college days at Yale, blamed congressional Democrats for much of what has gone wrong for bankers during the Bush administration.
But he also said the Treasury which has carried the ball for the administration on banking policy, mishandled legislative tactics badly. particularly on last year's banking law.
"Treasury, Stumbled badly on this." Mr. Ashley said. "The administration sent up the kind of reform that was needed, but the implementation left a lot to be desired. I don't think it was effectively handled by the Treasury Department. They failed in a rather remarkable way."
In a sense, the administration's record on banking policy is emblematic of the highs and lows of a President who had the confidence of 88% of the public after winning a war last year, only to plummet in the polls as the economy soured.
During his first 90 days in office President Bush seemed invincible. He proposed a massive rescue plan for the savings and loan industry and rung up a stunning legislative victory with passage of the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act in 1989.
Credit for S&L Bailout
"I really think the president should get credit for stepping up to the plate right from the start on S&Ls," said Rep. Jim Leach, R-lowa. "As lousy as all the implications on cost are, a refusal to be forthcoming in 1989 could have precipitated a crisis in the system, as well as a breach of public confidence.
"The fact that it was done was impressive," he said.
But as impressive as the savings and loan bailout law may have been, it also set the stage for the humbling defeat the Treasury suffered on its ambitious 1991 proposal to overhaul the banking and financial services industries. Bankers widely regard that outcome as a disaster.
"It's been a very tough four years for [the] industry in Washington. especially because of the S&L disaster," said Edward L. Yingling, chief lobbyist for the American Bankers Association.
"It's hard sometimes for bankers to understand it. but it was probably the biggest financial and political scandal in history," Mr. Yingling added. "The entire Bush administration has been overshadowed by it."
Paul Schosberg, president of the Community and Savings Bankers of America, the big thrift trade group, agreed. Debate over the S&L bailout "unleashed a lot of pent-up fury among lawmakers," he noted.
The thrift bailout "was like Terminator II," he said, describing an environment in which lawmakers competed to see who could be toughest on thrifts. Most observers believe banks were caught up in the same emotionally charged atmosphere.
Harm to Banks Conceded
Today, the bailout itself is in jeopardy. Funding for the Resolution Trust Corp. expired at the end of March, and the administration has been unable to obtain new funding from Congress, in large part because of opposition from House Republicans.
Treasury officials concede that last year's banking bill hurt the industry but blame the environment created by the savings and loan crisis and the Democrat-controlled Congress.
"The bill that came out in the end was overwhelmingly a negative bill for industry, with a few exceptions," said Jerome H. Powell, Treasury under secretary for domestic finance.
"We put in a great bill and worked it harder than any Treasury Department ever worked a bank reform bill," Mr. Powell said. "Among the many factors that explain the unhappy outcome are interest-group bickering, a congressional system that is set up to cater to many powerful and well-funded interest groups, and huge splits in the banking industry itself"
Moreover, Mr. Powell argued that the administration's efforts last year advanced the debate over bank reform. The House Banking Committee, which traditionally has opposed new bank powers, approved a bill that embodied most of the Treasury's agenda for change.
Bush Seen Pushing Bank Relief
While that bill was scrapped by the House leadership, Mr. Powell said, it sets the stage for consideration of reform in a second Bush administration.
If President Bush is reelected, Mr. Powell said, the Treasury will push for broad goals largely developed last year and this year: interstate branching, new bank powers, regulatory relief, and an end to the barriers between banking and commerce.
Already, signs of change in the Bush administration are likely to hearten those who applauded the Treasury's policy goals but despaired over its implementation.
James A. Baker 3d, who will take over next week as White House chief of staff, is a tough, disciplined manager with a background in financial services.
As Treasury secretary in the second Reagan term, Mr. Baker fought the thrift industry tooth and nail in the 1987 battle to recapitalize the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp.
Mr. Baker personally negotiated the final deal with the Democratic chairman of the House Banking Committee that delivered a $10.75 billion, industry, financed cash infusion for the insurance fund - twice what the House had approved in a floor vote.
If Mr. Baker remains in the White House during a second Bush term, many observers believe, he will formulate a coherent, coordinated, and politically realistic legislative agenda in banking issues.
That would be in stark contrast to the first term, which administration critics say has been characterized by turf battles between the White House and Treasury and by policy swings.
Sununu's Torpedo Attack
In 1991, for example, the Treasury launched an ambitious effort to overhaul the financial services industry. But White House chief of staff John Sununu was skeptical of the initiative and did his best to hold it back, according to Mr. Ashley and other sources close to the process.
"You have to raise the question of what the hell Sununu was up to," said Mr. Ashley, who was in close contact with the President during that period. He said Mr. Sununu "was poohpoohing the idea of reform" and apparently working "to undercut the Treasury."
By early 1992, Mr. Sununu was gone, but policy coordination between the White House and Treasury appeared no less confused.
After the bruising 1991 legislative struggle, the Treasury had narrowed its quest for new bank. powers to a single objective: interstate branching. But the new White House staff wasn't so sure that was a good idea.
Six regional bank chief executive officers - all enthusiastic supporters of interstate-branching legislation - visited the White House Feb. 2 to meet with the new chief of staff, Samuel C. Skinner, and presidential counselor Clayton Yuetter.
"They came out discouraged and disillusioned," said Paul Quinn, a Washington-based lawyer who helped lead the banks' lobbying effort this year.
"They were there supporting the administration's program," Mr. Quinn recalled, "and the response was that this was an election year and they weren't sure the President wanted to get into it."
Similarly, the Bush administration's two major legislative initiatives - the 1989 thrift bailout law and the 1991 restructuring initiative - both aimed at ratcheting up the regulation of insured depository institutions.
Blaming the Regulators
By the end of 1991, however, the administration had concluded that its own supervisory agencies deserved a major share of the blame for the credit crunch, and Treasury officials were pushing hard for regulators to ease up.
In other areas of bank policy, the administration has scored notable successes, from Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady's plan for dealing with Third World debt to the recently completed North American Free Trade Agreement, which will open Mexico to U.S. banks.
"Treasury fought for U.S. bank concerns, and it clearly made a difference in what we got," M. Peter McPherson, BankAmerica Corp. executive vice president, said of the trade agreement.
Mr. McPherson, a former Reagan administration Treasury official, said both President Bush and Secretary Brady involved themselves personally on behalf of the banking industry in the Nafta talks.
Bush Intervenes with Salinas
At one critical juncture, he said, Mr. Brady asked the White House for help and President Bush called Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. As a result, the financial-services component of the negotiations was put back on track.
Still, going into the election, even some of the President's most enthusiastic supporters are urging support for the Republican ticket in large measure because of the dangers they perceive for the industry in a Democratic administrator.