WASHINGTON -- In 1975, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Arthur Burns made a courtesy call on a newly seated senator, Jake Garn of Utah. On his way back to the Fed, he confided to an aide that he had found the Republican lawmaker ideal in almost every respect: intelligent, articulate, and conservative.
"What a pity," Mr. Burns added, "that he has no use for government."
Nearly 18 years later, as Sen. Garn prepares to retire from the Senate when his term ends this year, Mr. Burns' judgment still rings true.
As senior Republican on the Senate Banking Committee and the administration's point man for financial services legislation, Sen. Garn is an articulate and intelligent spokesman for industry deregulation.
But he is also a man who gives every sign of holding the legislative process - and sometimes his colleagues as well - in utter contempt.
Admirers say Sen. Garn's criticism of Washington is more than justified by the record of congressional inaction on banking reform. But critics say his antipathy toward government handicapped his legislative career, including the six years as spend as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee.
"He never seemed to enjoy himself," said one congressional source who followed the senator's career closely. "He thought Washington was corrupt, that interest groups were corrupt, and that the whole process of enacting legislation was corrupt."
Frustration, Not Contempt
Sen. Garn, who has denounced his colleagues on more than one occasion as "gutless," concedes that he sometimes "rants and raves." But he said he boils over out of frustration with the legislative process, rather than contempt for his coleagues.
It is trustrating, he said during an interview in his Dirksen Building offices, "to spend all these years and have so little change [in the banking system], despite all the evidence that it should change. Why can't we pass any decent bills around here?"
Aides to the senator say he is simply a man of strong conviction.
"His moral compass is so straight, it's incredible," said Ray Natter, the banking committee's Republican general counsel. "He always wants to know from staff what's the right public policy. And that's the course he will follow."
A Mixed Bag
For the banking and financial services industry, Sen. Garn's departure is a mixed bag.
On the one hand, he was the lawmaker banks and thrifts counted on to hold the line against consumer activists, securities industry lobbyists, and others who tried either to trim bank powers or increase regulation.
"There are two areas where he will definitely be missed," said Edward L. Yingling, the chief lobbyist for the American Bankers Association. "One is his role as an advocate of structural reform. The other is more nebulous, but he was a major blocker" of burdensome regulations.
Promises Proved Empty
Yet many bankers will also remember him as the lawmaker who couldn't deliver on his deregulatory promises. In six years as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, he wasn't able to produce a sweeping bank reform bill.
His one major piece of legislation, the controversial Garn-St Germain Act, included a provision that rolled back insurance powers for banks.
"I can still remember Garn coming over to the ABA to ask us to support the bill," recalled one industry lobbyist. "It was a close call for the banking industry, and we signed on because he assured us he would take care of the insurance restrictions in conference. But when it was over, the insurance language was still there."
In publicm, the 59-year-old senator often appears stern and humorless, a foreboding figure, bald with dark, flashing eyes.
Acts of Bravery
He can sound petty and churlish at times, as when he angrily announced to a full room at a 1987 banking committee session that he was "getting sick of all of you, just really sick,"
But he has also behaved heroically, soaring into space as a shuttle astronaut and risking his life on an operating table to donate a kidney to his diabetic daughter.
To many observers, Sen. Garn remains a bit of an enigma, even after 18 years in Washington.
Though a staunch conservative, he counted among his best friends in the Senate the late Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, the "happy warrior" of American liberalism.
Today, he says, his closest friends in Washington include Sen. Christopher Dodd, DConn., even though "we don't ever agree on much."
A devout Mormon who has never tasted alcohol, he was the first one to defend T. Timothy Ryan when the lawyer's nomination to become the top thrift regulator appeared imperiled by his drug use as a youth.
Son Overcame Drug Problem
In that instance, Sen. Garn drew on his own experiences and recalled the long, difficult years he spent trying to wean his eldest son off drugs after his first wife died.
"For the first few months that my second wife and I were married," Sen. Garn said, "I'd be on the phone with him every night - because I knew if we were on the phone he couldn't be in trouble."
"Today, here's my son," he said, crossing the room to pick up one of the many family portraits that adorn his Senate offices. "He's 34 years old. Here's his wife, one little boy, a little girl here, and a little boy. He went on a Mormon mission to England, came home, and graduated magna cum laude - got his MBA and passed the CPA in one sitting. He's a model young man.
"So when they came up with Tim Ryan, my comment was, |Big deal. Is he doing it now?' That is why I think Clinton is so ridiculous: |I didn't inhale, I didn't break any state laws.' Why can't he just say, |Yeah, I did it. I experimented with it, and it's over,'" He was referring to Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the Apparent Democratic nominee for president.
It was the death of his first wife, who was killed in an auto accident, that turned him on the road to retirement, Sen. Garn said. "It's really not possible to describe what it's like to be married to someone for 19 years and have four children and get a phone call one night that she's dead."
Time with the Family
Remarried now, he says "it is almost a compulsion to spend more time with my wife and children before I am too old to enjoy them." Over the years, Sen. Garn has missed more time with his family than he cares to remember, including the birth of his fourth son.
Sen. Garn intends to continue working, probably in the aerospace or financial services industry, but definitely in Utah, where he can be home for dinner with his family.
Still, for someone who has been so vocally frustrated with Congress, Sen. Garn says he has mixed feelings about leaving Washington.
"Sen. Jake Garn would very much like to stay," he said. "Jake Garn, husband and father, can't wait until this year is over."
Defender of Space Program
Looking back on his legislative career, where his two great passions were space programs and financial services, Sen. Garn harbors few doubts about the stands he took. He dismisses critics of the space program, which he has supported through an appropriations subcommittee, as just plain wrong.
"When you feel an absolute certainty that you are working for a program that does so much, criticism just doesn't bother you at all," he said. "You just feel sorry for the people who are so short-sighted."
The Utah Republican feels much the same way about the 1982 law that bears his name. "I'm proud of Garn-St Germain," he said.
To many observers, Sen. Garn has appeared to show a special interest in the thrift industry over the years.
The Garn-St Germain Act was essentially a thrift deregulation bill, and two individuals closely identified with him were tapped to run the Federal Home Loan Bank Board: Richard Pratt and M. Danny Wall, his longtime aide.
Garn-St Germain "opened the doorr to less supervision and regulation" of the thrift industry, said Kenneth A. Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers Association of America. And it came at a time when Sen. Garn's proteges were running the Bank Board.
For the record, Sen. Garn said it is not true that he sponsored Mr. Pratt for the bank board chairmanship. Although Mr. Pratt is also from Utah, it came as news to him, Sen. Garn said, when the White House told him that Mr. Pratt had been under consideration.
And despite widespread stories that Sen. Garn went to the mat for Mr. Wall, the senator said he did nothing more than ask for time with President Reagan to make a case for his former staff director.
"It's fair to say I adviced Dan not to want the job," Sen. Garn said. "I said, |Dan, If you want it, I'll try to help you get it. But with the funding limitations and actions of Congress, I don't care who goes down there, it can't get done."
Sen. Garn also rejects criticism of the Garn-St Germain Act, which has been blamed for bringing on the thrift crisis. Far from being a massive deregulation bill, he said, the 1982 law's major new power granted to thrifts was the authority to invest up to 10% of an institution's assets in commercial loans.
It was the states, he said - specifically California, Texas, and Florida - that did the most damage by permitting their institutions to invest up to 100% of their portfolios directly in real estate.
"Three-fourths of the entire dollar volume lost occurred in state-chartered institutions," he said, echoing a point that his Democratic colleague, banking committee Chairman Donald W. Riegle, has also made on numerous occasions.
For all the time Sen. Garn has devoted to banking committee work, many observers believe it was the space program, not the banking commitee, that really captured his imagination and engaged his energies.
A Seasoned Pilot
A pilot who has been flying since he was 15, Sen. Garn, said his 1985 space shuttle voyage "was an awe-inspiring experience. You have 16 sunrises and sunsets each day, 45 minutes of daylight and 45 of darkness, coupled with the feeling of weightlessness.
"People ask me if I found God in space, and I say no, because I already knew God before I went. But it certainly enhanced my belief in God," he added.
It also heightened his exasperation over life in Congress.
"In many ways it does increase your frustration with what goes on here on Earth because you view Earth as a whole and realize that it was rather insignificant in the overall scheme of things," he said.
The IBAA's Mr. Guenther believes the conflicting emotions Sen. Garn has shown over the triumphs of the space program and the irritations of life on the banking committee highlight an element of tragedy in his legislative career.
"This is a man of enormous integrity and great personal courage," said Mr. Guenther, the former Federal Reserve lobbyist who accompanied Fed Chairman Burns to the senator's office all those years ago.
The tragedy, Mr. Guenther said, is that Sen. Garn "would have preferred to be chairman of the |Air and Space Comittee.' In the final analysis, he ended up being bored by the work of the banking committee."