WASHINGTON -- Life as a thrift lobbyist is no bed of roses. Just ask Jim Butera, one of the foot soldiers who fought legislation that stripped away tax advantages the government had granted in order to market a group of failed thrifts in December 1988.

"I met with 15 senators over the last few years and every one of them said the same thing." the independent lobbyist recalled.

"They'd say, 'You're right, this is bad tax policy,, it's unfortunate, and we're not going to help you.'"

For thrift lobbyists operating in the the wake of the 1989 savings and loan bailout, just being right isn't good enough, it seems.

Keeping Their Distance

Although the hard feelings are beginning to subside, many lawmakers are still reluctant to be identified too closely with the thrift industry, even on issues where they believe the industry is clearly right.

In part, that's because many believe they were deceived by the industry in 1987, when Congress was considering legislation to recapitalize the now-defunct Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp.

That year, the industry was still at the top of its political game. The Reagan administration, supported by House Speaker Jim Wright, was pushing for a $15 billion industry-financed cash infusion, while the U.S. League of Savings Institutions was lobbying for a much smaller $5 billion program.

On the day of the House vote, thrift executives from around the country descended on Washington for a last round of arm-twisting, and when the ballots were counted, the industry had run up a huge victory,

Two years later, the extent of the industry's problems could no longer be hidden, and President Bush proposed a rescue plan which called for $50 billion in taxpayer-financed spending.

"The year 1989 was one of hostility," recalls J. Denis O'Toole, then the U.S. League's chief lobbyist and now with Household International.

Lawmakers who knew the industry "felt they had been misled." Mr. O'Toole recalled, and they were angry at the size of the bill that was being presented to taxpayers.

Members of Congress who had traditionally been good friends of the industry "said during FIRREA that they couldn't believe what you had done," Mr. O'Toole added.

More recently, he said, members have begun to show signs that they believe the industry "has been kicked around long enough."

But the election of 1992, which saw massive turnover in the House of Representatives, has made the situation even more complex,

"Now you have members with no institutional memory," he said.

"There is less and less understanding of how the thrift industry came to be and what it does."

Feels Things Are Looking Up

These days, the industry has to be more careful what it asks-for, said Richard F. Hohlt, a thrift lobbyist.

"These days, the industry has conditioned itself not to ask for unreasonable things," he added.

Still, Mr. Butera, for one, sees signs that life is looking up for thrift lobbyists.

"I really feel that the decade of punishment is coming to an end," he said.

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