The late Woody Hayes, legendary football coach at Ohio State, favored the "three yards and a cloud of dust" approach to offense. Coach Hayes explained, "When you put the ball in the air, three things can happen and two of them are bad."
Promoting legislation is similar to throwing a forward pass. Several things can happen and most of them are bad, as bankers know only too well.
The Bush administration, for example, proposed legislation to repeal the Glass-Steagall and Bank Holding Company Acts. It included a title to impose an oppressive regulatory regime on banks, mainly to appease critics in Congress.
The bill got worse as it wended its way through Congress. The result was the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Improvement Act, the most mindless banking legislation in U.S. history.
Thanks to actions by the Federal Reserve and the Comptroller of the Currency, backed by three major victories in the courts, banks no longer need legislation. Let the other guys attempt the "Hail Mary" passes.
Banks have long coveted the freedom to compete with securities firms, which for more than two decades have been swiping the banks' best customers. The Fed responded by allowing holding companies to form subsidiaries to underwrite securities.
The Fed's ruling was challenged and upheld in court. Most experts believe the Fed will liberalize further its so-called Section 20 rules once it's clear Glass-Steagall reform is dead.
The vast majority of banks believe the ability to sell insurance products is more important than underwriting securities. The comptroller has twice responded and been upheld by a unanimous Supreme Court.
In the Valic case the court upheld the comptroller's ruling that national banks can sell annuities. Importantly, the Court went on to hold that the comptroller has broad discretion to interpret the National Bank Act in light of modern realities.
More recently, the court ruled in the Barnett case that states can't prevent national banks in towns of fewer than 5,000 people from selling insurance products. These rulings are huge victories for banks and consumers.
The comptroller, on the heels of the Valic decision, stated his intention to allow national banks to engage in the full range of financial activities. Most activities would be permitted in the bank itself. Some would have to be placed in subsidiaries.
Anyone who has heard the comptroller speak on the subject can't have any doubt that he intends to allow national banks to keep pace with changes in the marketplace. Anyone who has read the Supreme Court's decision in Valic can't have any doubt about the comptroller's authority to deliver.
Banks don't seem to have grasped the full significance of the recent Supreme Court decisions and the comptroller's response. The comptroller has sent national banks an engraved invitation to the financial world of tomorrow. It's time to RSVP.
It's also time for the industry to change its legislative posture. For the first time in decades, banks don't need legislation. While it would be nice to get another regulatory relief package, it's hardly essential.
A lot of things can happen if banks promote a legislative agenda, most of them bad. There's so little upside potential and so much downside risk.
This is not to say that banks can safely ignore the Washington scene. There are plenty of folks trying to score points against the industry.
The independent insurance agents would dearly love to see Congress reverse the Barnett and Valic decisions. Thrifts, with the backing of the administration, would like to pick the banks' pockets to recapitalize the Savings Association Insurance Fund.
Playing defense in politics is considerably easier than putting points on the board. The defensive strategy is even more effective when you don't need to score.
Mr. Isaac, former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., is chairman and chief executive of Secura Group, Washington.