The regulatory relief bill may never make it to the President's desk, but it has already helped shed some light on the inner workings of the newly overhauled House Banking Committee.

The panel, like all others in the House, received a top-to-bottom overhaul in the wake of the last election. With 16 new members - representing nearly a third of the body's 51 seats - and a whole new slate of subcommittee chairmen, the panel is something of an unknown, not only to the lobbyists who work it day in and day out, but to the members themselves.

The Democrats, demoted to minority status, are still trying to get organized. And during the four days of deliberations over regulatory relief, they did - after a fashion.

On vote after vote, the Democrats hung together in a way that they rarely did when they had a majority. And on a committee that has never been terribly partisan, the new Democratic cohesiveness produced party-line votes that startled many longtime observers.

Of course, the Republicans often voted en bloc when they were in the minority. What made those votes bipartisan, however, was the willingness of a group of moderate Democrats to vote with the GOP.

The Democrats, though, are now primarily a blocking force, and their primary accomplishment has been to help pass an amendment that most probably don't even support. The measure, permitting broader affiliations between banks and insurance companies, is widely regarded as a "killer amendment" - one that will keep the relief bill from reaching the President's desk.

That's not an unreasonable choice for the minority party. Many Democrats are dismayed by the bill's assault on the Community Reinvestment Act. They lack the votes to rewrite the CRA provisions, so they did the next best thing by crippling the bill as a whole.

That establishes the Democrats as a force to be reckoned with. The next question, which also received an answer of sorts during the committee deliberations, is who will lead the panel's minority?

By rights, the job belongs to Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez, a proud Democrat from South Texas who distinguished himself during the 1989 savings and loan bailout.

In those days, he appeared to relish a fight over principle, and he could be found in the thick of virtually every legislative battle joined by the committee. Lately, though, he has been missing in action.

From the day the Republicans took over, he has been largely absent from the committee's deliberations. In four days of deliberations over regulatory relief, which included two 14-hour sessions, Rep. Gonzalez's presence could be measured with an egg timer.

An aide said Rep. Gonzalez was tied up during the second week of the committee vote trying to save Kelly Air Force Base, which is on the list of military posts scheduled to be closed.

But most observers believe Rep. Gonzalez is nearing the end of his career, and they are looking beyond the Texan and asking which of the men who follow him in seniority will inherit the leadership of the Banking Committee Democrats.

By seniority, Rep. John J. LaFalce is next in line for the leadership role. And early on in the regulatory relief sessions, he seemed determined to fill that role, roughing up the panel's Republican chairman over the issue of community reinvestment.

However, Rep. LaFalce was overtaken early on in the committee vote by Rep. Bruce Vento, a Minnesota Democrat who ranks just behind him in seniority. Rep. Vento is a more traditional Democrat, a liberal who votes with his party on key issues through thick and thin. And it was Rep. Vento who led his party in delaying the committee's deliberations on regulatory relief when the Democratic leadership decided to retaliate for a grevience stemming from an unrelated floor vote.

Rep. Vento challenged Rep. Gonzalez for the committee chairmanship in late 1990, and he could mount a credible challenge to Rep. LaFalce should the panel's Democratic leadership come up for grabs.

Many believe he is too much a devotee of "regular order" to buck the seniority system, and too close to Rep. LaFalce to challenge him for the top job. But the image that emerged during the regulatory relief markup was of a man ready to help lead his party out of the wilderness.

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