The banking lobby will remember 1998 as the year of lost opportunities for any significant pro-bank legislation.
Lawmakers are scheduled to vote Tuesday on a catchall budget bill and then return home to campaign for re-election. They will leave undone controversial financial services and bankruptcy reform bills that came closer than expected to becoming law.
Bankers, as a result, had no clear victories to celebrate. Even winning a $1.2 billion federal subsidy over five years on new student loans will not be enough to stop a 30-basis-point reduction in interest rates on these government-backed loans.
"It was a hard year and, for the most part, a frustrating year," said Edward L. Yingling, chief lobbyist for the American Bankers Association.
Though still recovering from the overwhelming approval of a law that eased credit union membership rules, the industry has high expectations for next year.
Strong votes in the House and Senate for a bankruptcy law overhaul- albeit for wildly different versions-and the House's historic approval of financial reform will provide momentum for 1999, supporters said.
"Both of these have an excellent chance of coming back next year and moving early," Mr. Yingling said.
To set the table for next year, House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach may introduce as early as today the Senate Banking Committee version of financial reform with amendments that were supported by the industry. No vote will be taken, a committee spokesman said.
The fate of legislation could be hampered by unexpected events. If the international economic crisis slows down the U.S. economy or threatens other hedge funds besides the nearly-collapsed Long-Term Capital Management, for example, lawmakers may change their minds about financial reform measures.
The Federal Reserve Board's surprise decision to cut interest rates by a quarter-point last week could be a harbinger of more market changes before the new Congress arrives in January.
"The unusual step the Fed is taking reflects a growing concern for a liquidity crunch in America and a recognition that our economy cannot stay insulated from global traumas," Rep. Leach said.
Supporters of financial reform also will have to find a way next year to avert the ideological debate over the Community Reinvestment Act that derailed at least two major bills and threatened a third.
Complaining that the financial reform bill extended CRA, Republican Sens. Phil Gramm and Richard C. Shelby used procedural tactics late in the session to prevent a vote by the full Senate.
Supporters of financial reform were exasperated afterward, arguing that Senate rules had let a small number of opponents stymie Congress over provisions that were not opposed by the industry. The same two senators also slowed debate on the credit union bill this summer, with Sen. Shelby unsuccessfully trying to exempt small banks from CRA.
"You've got a couple of ideologues who insist on fighting this issue out on every measure that comes along," said Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee. "The institutions aren't pressing the issue. ... It is absolutely a ridiculous development."
An identical CRA rollback for small banks by Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., bogged down the House version of regulatory relief. The provision was stripped, and the House approved the bill but too late for Senate consideration.
Rep. Leach said House Banking's financial institutions subcommittee will hold hearings on CRA next year.
Another wild card is the outcome of the November congressional races. Though key players on the Banking Committees are expected to be reelected, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse D'Amato is embroiled in a tight race with Rep. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. Other prominent lawmakers such as House Rules Committee Chairman Gerald Solomon, a strong defender of insurance agents, are retiring.
The biggest loss for 1998 was the approval of the credit union law, which President Clinton signed in Au-gust. The industry started the year on a high by winning a Supreme Court decision that required members of the nonprofit institutions to share a single, common bond. But Congress overturned the ruling under heavy lobbying by credit unions.
The law, which lets a credit union serve unrelated companies or other groups provided they have fewer than 3,000 people, imposed capital requirements and business lending limits on credit unions. Bankers blasted these measures as weak but failed to get stricter commercial loan limits or community reinvestment requirements.
"The community bankers of the United States have every reason to be angered," said Kenneth A. Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers Association of America. "The only meaningful banking legislation that this Congress has passed ... slants the competitive landscape toward credit unions."
Lawmakers also denied small banks' effort to reform the Federal Home Loan Bank System, but they did indirectly help them by agreeing to a $6 billion bailout package for farmers.
The banking and credit card industries are still trying to explain why their optimistic forecasts for bankruptcy reform were wrong.
Philip S. Corwin, a lobbyist who represents the ABA on the legislation, said the industry could not have prevented the Senate from approving a bill so different from the House's version. That is because the Senate's rules give a handful of opponents disproportionate power to shape the bill.