The last time Congress mandated a report on the financial services industry, banks and thrifts were hit with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Improvement Act - the most reviled banking law in memory.

Well, get ready: The next report is due Dec. 29.

The advisory commission on financial services, mandated in last year's interstate branching law, finally held its first meeting this week. With a statutory deadline for a report looming, the panel has all of four months left to make recommendations to Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who in turn must report to Congress.

It's not much time, but that's okay by the industry, which could hardly be less concerned with the advisory council. Nobody will come right out and tell Secretary Rubin that they regard the whole process as a big yawn, but that's pretty much the prevailing sentiment.

The banking industry's general lack of interest was apparent at the commission's first meeting, which convened in the ornate Cash Room of the Department of the Treasury.

Secretary Rubin sat at the head of the table, surrounded by a number of industry notables, among them former Comptroller of the Currency John G. Heiman, Fannie Mae Vice Chairman Franklin D. Raines, and Wells Fargo vice chairman Clyde W. Ostler.

It's the kind of panel that usually attracts a crowd. On Capitol Hill, a hearing on banking issues that featured a sitting Treasury secretary might be standing room only. But the Cash Room was only partly filled.

Why the lack of interest?

First, practical politics. With Republicans in charge of everything but the White House tennis courts, recommendations of a Democratic administration - even one advised by a panel of industry luminaries - aren't likely to be given much of a hearing.

Second, the legislative outlook was much brighter earlier this year, when industry leaders decided the commission was irrelevant. Back then, many bank lobbyists were still basking in the glow of 1994's victories - interstate branching and a minor regulatory relief bill, among them. The new year, if anything, looked even better.

Long-sought legislation repealing the Glass-Steagall Act was the No. 1 concern of the new chairman of the House Banking Committee, and many bankers thought it was a done deal. The industry's top priority - a second regulatory relief package - was also a key objective of the new Republican Congress.

The legislative climate changes quickly, however, and by spring it was clear that the outlook was no longer sunny and bright.

Both Glass-Steagall and regulatory relief are now being held hostage to an insurance industry amendment that would limit new powers for national banks. The bills are unlikely to make it to the House floor before October and maybe not until next year.

At the same time, an increasing number of legislators are beginning to say that the No. 1 banking issue is no longer regulatory relief but legislation to cure the ailing savings and loan insurance fund.

Many legislators and regulators believe Congress should consider merging the bank and thrift industries at the same time, and even those who want to wait concede that a single industry is all but inevitable.

Any discussion of an industry merger raises the question of what kind of charter depository institutions should share: the one now employed by commercial banks or a new set of operating guidelines that incorporate features peculiar to each industry?.

That question in turn raises a host of high-stakes issues for banks and thrifts. To cite but one example: Should the new charter give all depository institutions the kind of broad insurance powers now enjoyed by unitary thrift holding companies?

It's the kind of question that a commission on financial services is eminently well suited to answer. And given the unknowns of legislative timing, it's just possible that Treasury will report to Congress as critical decisions are being made on the future of the thrift industry.

If so, bankers may well wish they had taken the commission more seriously.

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