WASHINGTON - High turnover in Congress and the prospect of a new occupant for the Oval Office make it highly unlikely that major bank reform legislation will be signed into law in the next few years, lobbyists said recently.
Sam Baptista, president of the Financial Services Council, said there will be "a dramatic change on the House Banking Committee" next year because of retirements, the defeat of incumbents, and a desire by many members of the panel to seek plum assignments on higher-profile committees, such as appropriations, ways and means, or energy and commerce.
Consequently, he said, somewhere in the vicinity of 50% of the Banking Committee's members will be in only their first or second term in Congress. "That will definitely have an impact," he said. "It will require a major education effort on our part."
The Financial Services Council is a collection of financial firms that lobbies Congress to break down legal barriers separating investment banking, commercial banking, insurance, and other services.
Complicating the analysis of whether and when Congress will act on far-ranging financial industry reforms is uncertainty over who will occupy the White House come January - Gov. Bill Clinton, D-Ark., or the incumbent President, Republican George Bush.
"The results of the coming election are critical to the timing of bank legislation," said Steve Verdier, senior legislative counsel for the Independent Bankers Association of America, a group representing small banks that generally oppose wholesale revisions of federal banking law.
"The Bush administration has an agenda, and they're ready to go," Mr. Verdier said. "All they've got to do is change the dates on their cover letters and ship their package up to Capitol Hill. But if Clinton is elected, he's not going to have the same agenda, and it is unclear whether banking issues would even be at the top of that agenda. "
Last year, President Bush made financial reform a keystone of domestic policy, and the Treasury Department pushed for enactment of legislation that would allow investment firms and commercial banks into each other's business. The effort foundered in Congress amid concerns about the solvency of the Bank Insurance Fund and the advisability of granting financial firms new powers during unsteady economic times.
Congress instead approved a vastly scaled-back version of the bill, confined to regulatory reforms and bolstering the flagging deposit insurance fund.
In his fiscal 1993 budget, issued in late January, President Bush called on Congress to complete the unfinished task of revamping the financial system, a call that remains unanswered.
Lobbyists said the Bush experience demonstrates that even with strong presidential backing, bank reform is anything but a consensus issue. "This area is going to continue to be controversial," said Mr. Verdier. "Floating big, comprehensive bills has proven not to be a winning approach. "
Another lobbyist, who represents large banking institutions, said it is unlikely there will be attempts to pass "any omnibus banking bills for a very long time."
The lobbyist said even the President's re-election would leave uncertainty. He said President Bush would likely revamp his cabinet for a second term, replacing Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, whose successor may not place a high priority on bank reform.
Sizing up the prospects for a Democratic presidency, the lobbyist said Gov. Clinton could prove to be pro-business and more conservative than painted by Republican strategists. The lobbyist said that though bankers traditionally embrace Republican administrations and cringe at Democratic presidencies, "I don't view the election of a Democrat as a negative."
The lobbyist said that the last "good banking bill" came under the Carter administration. The 1980 measure gave banks greater freedom to compete with other financial services by allowing them to pay market interest rates on deposits.
In general, the lobbyists downplayed the possibility that Congress will soon revisit major changes in the way commercial and investment banks do business. But they said the potential elevation of Rep. Stephen L. Neal, D-N.C., to the chairmanship of the House Banking Committee's financial institutions subcommittee could get the issue on a faster track.
Rep. Neal is the early favorite to succeed Rep. Frank Annunzio, D-Ill., Ill., as chairman of the influential subcommittee. Rep. Annunzio has announced he is not seeking reelection to his House seat.
"He's said he wants to move on these issues," Mr. Baptista said of Rep. Neal's desire to tackle industry restructuring.
"Whether that gets the issues back on the table with sufficient force to get them enacted is anyone's guess," Mr. Baptista said. "But right now, they're not even on the radar screen."