By now, every bank lobbyist in town must be longing for a good, clean piece of legislation that one can either love or hate with all his or her heart. At least then they'd know what side they were on.
Banking legislation, unfortunately, is more complicated. Almost everyone knows what they think of Glass-Steagall reform or regulatory relief. The problem is that neither issue comes packaged that cleanly. Each is wrapped up with a dozen other items that make choices devilishly complicated.
And it gets worse by the day.
Earlier this year, bankers everywhere were excited about the prospect of regulatory relief and none more so than Kenneth A. Guenther, head of the Independent Bankers Association of America.
For Mr. Guenther, whose trade group represents the nation's tiniest banks, the bill taking shape had a special plum: a provision exempting small institutions from the Community Reinvestment Act.
The regulatory relief bill started off clean as a fresh load of wash, but that happy state of affairs lasted about as long as Pete Wilson's presidential campaign.
The nation's insurance agents showed up early in the game, looking for a way to drive banks off their playing field. Regulatory relief looked like just the ticket - a bill the industry wanted so badly that it would pay almost any price to get it.
The price the agents sought was a moratorium on new insurance powers for national banks and that turned out to be a bit too steep for most bankers. So the House leadership raised the stakes, adding Glass-Steagall repeal to the mix and making Mr. Guenther's life a little more complicated.
"Glass-Steagall is a tough one for community banks," said Mr. Guenther, who in years past has vehemently opposed efforts to repeal the Depression- era law.
The problem for Mr. Guenther is twofold. First, the measure is the No. 1 priority for House Banking Committee chairman Jim Leach - one of the Independent Bankers' patron saints.
Besides, Mr. Guenther adds, "Glass-Steagall could be so much worse." In the hands of another committee chairman, he said, Glass-Steagall could be used to tear down the walls separating banking and commerce, the IBAA's ultimate nightmare.
Tough choices. But much better to support Rep. Leach's version of Glass- Steagall repeal, Mr. Guenther reasons, than to take a chance later with another committee chairman.
But that was before Rep. Leach decided to take the small-bank CRA exemption out of the bill. The regulatory relief package still looks good, but CRA relief was its crown jewel. Without it, the IBAA could well decide to oppose the whole package.
The legislative package is equally complicated for large banks. Glass- Steagall repeal would be a big step forward for many institutions, but the accompanying moratorium on the Comptroller of the Currency amounts to a long step backward.
Over the years, the Comptroller's office has taken an expansive view of bank powers - the decision to permit banks to market insurance nationwide from towns of under 5,000 is the best, but not the only, example - and most big banks want to keep that avenue open.
And that doesn't even take account of the House leadership's decision to drop from the bill a separate provision that would permit banks to affiliate with insurance companies in some states. Losing the provision is, as they say in bank lobbying circles, a big negative.
Of course, the Senate hasn't even gotten involved. Larger institutions are counting on the upper chamber to make the bill more palatable, while small institutions and their representatives see the Senate phase as one long, downhill slide.
Senate consideration is one key factor every lobbyist must now take into account. And unfortunately for those bankers whose businesses have so much at stake, it is easily the most complex variable in this whole legislative calculus.