WASHINGTON - As Congress reconvenes today, banking industry lobbyists vying for a spot on the political radar screen this year may wind up victims of their own success in the last session.
This year is the first in decades that financial services lobbyists will not be fixated on pressing financial reform. President Clinton tore down the remaining walls separating the banking, insurance, and securities sectors on Nov. 12 when he signed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, leaving a troubled bankruptcy reform bill as the only major piece of unfinished financial legislation.
Lawmakers and their staff members spent so much energy on reform last year that many observers question whether Congress will have any interest in tackling more banking legislation.
"I am not sure a whole lot is going to be done," said Edward L. Yingling, chief lobbyist for the American Bankers Association. "Many people think [Gramm-Leach-Bliley] may be the only major bill in this Congress."
Moreover, gridlock is expected to be epidemic on Capitol Hill. Election-year politics tend to preempt the bipartisanship needed for successful banking legislation. The time frame for passing legislation will be short because lawmakers will spend time on the campaign trail and are scheduled to adjourn Oct. 6.
"The climate does not seem to favor legislation this year," said Kenneth A. Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Community Bankers of America. That may be just as well, he said Friday, because "bankers are going to have their plates full starting this week with the regulations from Gramm-Leach-Bliley."
The House Banking Committee, in particular, could be a political minefield. Rep. Jim Leach has vowed to abide by House Republican term limits on chairmanships and step down from the committee's helm if he wins re-election. Insiders say Reps. Marge Roukema, R-N.J., and Richard H. Baker, R-La., are maneuvering to succeed him.
Democrats are highly optimistic of winning back the House in November. If that happens, the spot would most likely go to the banking panel's ranking Democrat, Rep. John J. LaFalce of New York, assuming he is re-elected.
A bit like the United States after the Cold War, the banking industry no longer has an overarching, strategic battle to fight on the Hill. Instead, it will be handling a number of smaller scuffles such as tougher anti-money-laundering legislation and fighting on fragmented fronts as state governments across the country delve into consumer privacy protections. Officials may have to settle for small victories at the federal level this year, such as enactment of electronic signature legislation and some smaller tax reforms.
The one big battle on the horizon is bankruptcy reform, and that legislation could blow up as early as this week unless Senate leaders referee bipartisan disputes that have endured from last year. (The House passed legislation last year, but it bogged down in the Senate.)
"That is probably a longer shot than most," said Joe Belew, president of the Consumer Bankers Association. "Everybody is going to give it the good old college try. ... There's been a slew of work for years now. The product we have now is not as good as we would have liked, but it's acceptable, needed, and we're hopeful."
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott is scheduled to offer a motion Tuesday that would cut off debate and prevent Democrats from proposing what his party considers unrelated amendments that are meant to stall the legislation.
But Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle urged Democratic colleagues in a Jan. 14 letter to oppose the motion so votes could be held on amendments by Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York involving bankruptcy filings by gun companies and by attackers of abortion clinics. If the motion is defeated, Sen. Lott would probably withdraw the bill indefinitely.
Mr. Yingling agreed that the bill is "up in the air" but said he holds out hope a deal can be reached by Tuesday or that any sidetracking of the legislation would be temporary. "It is hard to say a bill of this magnitude is dead in January."
The legislation with the best chance of enactment is the so-called "digital signature" bill, which would recognize the validity of electronic contracts and signatures. Lenders favor the version that passed the House last year because it would also let them make mortgage and other federally mandated disclosures electronically, but the White House favors the Senate-approved bill that keeps such disclosures on paper in order to protect consumers. Whether the compromise bill will satisfy the industry is unclear.
"I can't predict we will get everything we want," Mr. Belew said, "but I think there's a good chance there will be a bill."
On privacy, the White House is expected to propose legislation that would toughen the privacy provisions in the financial reform law by giving consumers the right to block sharing of information with holding company affiliates in addition to third parties. Though many states are expected to seriously debate privacy legislation this year, little beyond rhetoric or hearings is expected on the Hill so that Gramm-Leach-Bliley's privacy provisions can take effect in November and be tested for awhile.
The Senate Banking Committee does not anticipate voting on any major banking legislation this year, a spokeswoman said. Instead, the panel will devote significant attention to drafting a securities industry regulatory relief bill, tackling export issues, and considering some deregulation for the credit union industry, too. It is expected to swiftly approve the renomination of Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, but may stall nominations for the Fed and other banking regulatory posts.
Chairman Leach has said House Banking will continue hearings on alleged money laundering by customers of the Bank of New York and other large American institutions with suspected ties to Russian mobsters. The Iowa Republican has also scheduled a hearing on the recent failures of small banks, because of alleged fraud and mismanagement that have been so costly to the deposit insurance system.
Rep. Roukema plans to hold House Banking subcommittee hearings on merging the bank and deposit insurance funds, but most observers said the issue would merely be aired this year to tee up the issue for the new Congress. Equally in doubt is pending legislation that would permit interest payments on reserves held at the Federal Reserve and business checking accounts; one of the main issues is the cost of the bill.