A banker called the other day to talk about the congressional elections. He wondered how much Republicans had been hurt by the loss of support from bankers after the vote against banks on the credit union bill.

There's something to that thought.

Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 because they were able to convince voters that they stood for certain principles. They said they believed in free markets and wanted to reduce the scope and intrusiveness of government.

For decades bankers were among the most loyal of Republican constituencies. They supported Republican candidates consistently, even though it seemed the GOP would never attain majority status in Congress.

Republicans began to disappoint bankers almost from the day they took control of Congress.

The first big test came on the legislation to recapitalize the savings and loan deposit insurance fund. A couple of years earlier, Congress had agreed that the Treasury - that is, taxpayers-would recapitalize the Savings Association Insurance Fund, should that become necessary.

The Clinton administration proposed placing that burden on banks instead. Bankers were outraged at the thought of having to bail out the S&Ls. They didn't cause the S&L crisis, and were among the chief victims of the havoc it created.

None of that mattered to the Republican-controlled Congress, as it imposed a special $12 billion tax on banks.

Then there was the financial modernization legislation, HR 10. As it wended its way through the House, it became a convoluted, regressive piece of legislation not worthy of its "modernization" label.

I attended a meeting not long before the bill was brought to the House floor for a vote. Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, a senior member of the House leadership, assured bankers that the bill would not be brought to a vote if the banking industry or any other major industry group opposed it.

But shortly after those words were uttered, the bill was brought to a vote in the House over strenuous objections from the American Bankers Association, the Bankers Roundtable, America's Community Bankers, and the Independent Bankers Association.

So much for promises and loyalty.

Despite enormous pressure from the Republican leadership, the bill was defeated on the House floor. Not willing to accept defeat, then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, in a highly irregular move, held open the voting until he could persuade enough members to change their votes.

To achieve their hollow victory, the Republicans aligned themselves with Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., for decades an arch-opponent of financial modernization.

The credit union episode was pretty much the last straw for community banks. The National Credit Union Administration had eviscerated the legislative requirement that credit union members have a "common bond."

The banks won a Supreme Court decision declaring that the NCUA had acted illegally. Republicans voted overwhelmingly to reverse the court decision.

So now tax-exempt credit unions are permitted to roam the financial services landscape freely, in direct competition with tax-paying community banks.

So much for free markets.

If Republicans treated other core constituencies the way they treated banks, it's no wonder they fared poorly in this year's elections. What reason did bankers have this year to put a lot of energy into electing more Republicans?

Congressional Republicans forgot that they were elected to fight for a philosophy of governance. Simply put, they lost their compass and failed to distinguish themselves from their opponents.

Whether Republicans control Congress in 2000 and beyond will depend in large part on whether they have learned the lessons of 1998.

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