WASHINGTON - Indelible memories of the savings and loan debacle of the 1980s still drive Rep. Marge Roukema, the New Jersey Republican who could become the next chairwoman of the House Banking Committee.
She remembers the enactment of the 1982 law that expanded thrift powers, and then the vote seven years later for a multibillion-dollar federal bailout of the out-of-control industry.
"I was a new member of Congress when they wrote the S&L legislation and it seemed so simple," she said. "I learned very early on that you can't do anything that simple and protect the safety and soundness of the financial system."
If she becomes chairwoman, Rep. Roukema vowed in a recent interview, "I am going to do everything I can to assure that the taxpayers are never again left with that kind of dereliction of responsibility."
Precisely what could prompt the next big crisis is unclear, but Rep. Roukema urged vigilance among lawmakers to ensure that the diversified financial companies established by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act do not abuse their powers. That vigilance includes carefully overseeing the implementation of privacy, merchant banking, and other provisions to preserve the integrity of the financial system.
"If we do anything, we're going to be out there thinking ahead," she said. "That will be my goal."
First things first, however. Two elections stand between Rep. Roukema and the chairwomanship she openly covets.
The first is the national election in November, in which her party will fight to retain control of the House. The second would be the December intraparty election - usually predetermined by Republican leaders - to dole out committee leadership posts.
Current committee Chairman Jim Leach is required by the Republican Party's term-limit rules to relinquish the helm at yearend. Rep. Roukema, who has served 10 terms in Congress, and the more junior Rep. Richard H. Baker of Louisiana, chairman of the capital markets subcommittee, have both thrown their hats into the ring to head the committee.
"I fully intend to make my candidacy known on the basis of my experience on the committee, my seniority, and the work that I've done as chairwoman of the financial institutions subcommittee," Rep. Roukema, 71, said. "The tenure wasn't just years in service. I've been very active in legislation."
She is courting her colleagues and showing them that she would act on their priorities. "I am working with my [subcommittee] members who want help with their legislation, and others who want hearings," she said.
Rep. Roukema said she has more investigating and studying to do before taking firm positions on such issues as deposit insurance reform, privacy, and predatory lending.
This year she learned about getting out in front too early the hard way.
Less than two months after announcing she was developing legislation that would raise deposit insurance coverage to as much as $200,000 per account, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan and Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers blasted the idea at a June hearing on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Roukema immediately backed off, saying that she was not committed to raising coverage but would hold hearings on the matter next year.
In the interview, she defended her reactions as prudent. "The point is that I recognized the realities out there, but I didn't have a firm proposal because it was rather complex," she said. "Something has to be done, but we don't have all the precision of an answer yet."
She also said it is too early to know if she would back stricter privacy legislation requiring financial institutions to get explicit customer consent before sharing information - the "opt-in" approach supported by privacy hawks such as Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.
"I am going to continue my investigations, my hearings on the subject," Rep. Roukema said. "And certainly I don't know whether or not we are going to come up with an actual piece of [privacy] legislation." She did note, though, that the opt-in approach "is still under review."
Another burning question on the minds of lawmakers and regulators is the best means to address abusive lending practices. Rep. Roukema says more research is needed.
"Obviously it is a problem, and it may be a growing problem, but nobody yet in the Congress has definitive information on it, nor are all the regulators all in tune yet," she said. "I don't think we're in the position yet that we want to dictate to these regulators."