WASHINGTON - Lawmakers are poised to adjourn as early as today a congressional session most observers have declared a dud in terms of banking legislation, but a top industry lobbyist described it as an important turning point when viewed in a broader context.
Sure, barring any last-minute political surprises, bankers will have failed to achieve their top legislative priorities this year of overhauling bankruptcy laws, increasing tax incentives for savings, and eliminating estate taxes when Congress finishes its two-year session.
But Edward L. Yingling, the executive director of government relations for the American Bankers Association, argued that it was hard to top the enactment of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, which shattered the historic barriers between banking, insurance, and securities companies.
He said in an interview Thursday that banking lobbyists have used the year to gear up for future battles, put aside old rivalries with other part of the financial services industry, and forming a more united front.
"Financial modernization not only is important for what was actually done, but politically it really is making the industry much stronger going forward," Mr. Yingling said.
"In the past financial modernization was like a huge vacuum cleaner with respect to our whole legislative agenda. Having it out of the way politically is tremendously important to the industry, because we now are building alliances" with the securities and insurance industries "that used to be our enemies," he said.
"And it really frees up our agenda to focus on other more targeted things for the first time literally in 25 years."
Indeed, he said, the end of the 1990s saw the removal of two "huge black clouds" over the industry: the Glass-Steagall Act by Gramm-Leach-Bliley, and the impediments to interstate banking that were resolved by the Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking and Branching Efficiency Act of 1994.
Major legislation usually forces industry lobbyists to use up political chits and energy, but pushing Gramm-Leach-Bliley gave them an opportunity to strengthen relationships with key lawmakers, which served them well this year, Mr. Yingling said.
Those lawmakers include the relatively new Senate Banking Committee Chairman Phil Gramm, House Banking's ranking Democrat, John J. LaFalce of New York, and House Banking subcommittee chairmen Marge Roukema, R-N.J., and Richard H. Baker, R-La.
In that light, Mr. Yingling said there was no need to make apologies about the lack of action this year.
"It is absolutely no surprise that not much happened in the year 2000," he said. "You could not have had a situation more well defined for nothing to happen, given this [gridlocked] Congress, given it was an election year, and given the fact that the House, the Senate, and the Presidency were all considered to be toss-ups.
"Then you add that to the fact that they had just done a watershed financial modernization bill."
The industry's biggest win this year came from the defensive side of the lobbying game: fending off additional federal and state restrictions on the corporate exchange of customer financial data. Mr. Yingling credited state banking associations for playing a key role in that effort, which looked doomed early in the year by massive public pressure to protect privacy.
Victory also was chalked up in the June enactment of digital signature legislation, which gave electronic versions of documents the same legal standing as their paper ancestors. Another success is the expected inclusion in the final appropriations package of a measure that would give bank swap agreements protection from further regulation.
"This may be the first Congress in a long time where we didn't get hit with anything negative," Mr. Yingling said Thursday from his corner office, where a spangled stuffed-toy Republican elephant and a Democratic donkey are propped up against each other.
Next year's lobbying agenda will be topped by continued defense against additional privacy laws, as well as a revival of key items from this year's agenda - bankruptcy reform, tax issues such as eliminating the estate tax, and creating incentives to increase retirement savings.
Further into the calendar will be deposit insurance reform, which is still in the early stages politically and practically.