WASHINGTON - If Jim Leach were a salesman, he'd probably starve.
Despite fervent and frequent pitches, the House Banking Committee chairman can't seem to sell his Glass-Steagall/regulatory relief bill. Even in Iowa, which has elected Rep. Leach to Congress 10 times, the bankers association is opposing the legislation.
The main complaint is a moratorium on the powers of the Office of Comptroller of the Currency. The moratorium would freeze the insurance powers of national banks for five years.
"There will be strong sentiment and strong opposition as long as OCC language is part of the bill," said Neil Milner, executive vice president of the Iowa Bankers Association.
Rep. Leach insists that the opposition is blowing the moratorium's impact out of proportion. In recent speeches and letters, the Iowa Republican has accused opponents of reaching "unrealistic and exaggerated conclusions" about his "relatively modest restraint" on the Comptroller.
"Modest" is not a word Comptroller Eugene A. Ludwig is using to describe the new restriction on his authority. Indeed, Mr. Ludwig has described it as being "locked into a legal straitjacket."
The bill is viewed from vastly different frames of reference. Rep. Leach sees it as the best chance the banking industry will ever have to dump a number of expensive regulatory requirements as well as repeal the Glass- Steagall Act. Mr. Ludwig and many bankers see the legislation as a bad deal.
So what's in the moratorium? Unlike past legislation, it's not a one- line prohibition. It's actually 10 pages long. The bottom line is that it bars the Comptroller from granting national banks any new insurance powers.
Rep. Leach contends this is no big deal, because the agency has already stretched its discretion to the breaking point. Not everyone agrees.
"The National Bank Act provides substantial flexibility for the industry to change over time and empowers the Comptroller" to approve those changes, said David Roderer, a partner with Winston & Strawn in Washington.
The Comptroller's chief counsel, Julie Williams, said the future of the banking industry depends on the agency's ability to adapt its rules to changes in the marketplace.
"For banks to be able to remain competitive they cannot stand still," she said in an interview this week. "This sort of freeze really undermines banks' health."
The moratorium also would allow state insurance regulators to license banks and and set disclosure requirements. Still, the legislation states: "No state may impose any regulatory requirement ... that treats a national bank differently than all other persons who are authorized to provide insurance."
But while the bill would prohibit state regulators from demanding more of banks, it does contains a loophole: "unless there is a legitimate and reasonable state regulatory purpose for the requirement for which there is no less restrictive alternative."
"While it appears to ban discrimination it actually sanctions it," said Phil Corwin, a lobbyist at the American Bankers Association.
The Comptroller's office also is concerned that the legislation would allow state insurance commissioners to define insurance.
"What constitutes insurance will be whatever is defined as insurance by the 50 different state insurance regulators," Ms. Williams said. "That's potentially 50 different definitions."
If a state labels a new banking product "insurance," then the bank would be barred from offering it because the moratorium would prevent the Comptroller's office from approving it, Ms. Williams explained.
The legislation also would change the law under which the Comptroller approves new activities. Currently, the OCC may allow new products and services that are "incidental to" banking. Under Rep. Leach's bill, these activities would have to be "part of" banking.
"It puts you in an uphill position in making the argument that anything new is part of the business of banking," Ms. Williams said.
Finally, the moratorium would undercut a number of pending banking/insurance lawsuits and invite a whole host of new ones.