WASHINGTON -- House Banking Committee Chairman Henry B. Gonzalez yesterday outlined an ambitious agenda for his panel in the coming year, but he said solutions to problems vexing the nation's banking system may be elusive.
"We have a lot of work to do that's accumulated over the last few decades," the Texas Democrat said at a press conference yesterday. "Anybody who expects a Reaganite, push-button solution is mistaken. It will take time and a lot of pain."
Rep. Gonzalez said his committee will take testimony next week from Charles A. Bowsher, the comptroller general of the General Accounting Office, to determine whether the $70 billion loan Congress approved last week for the Bank Insurance Fund will be sufficient to stafe off a taxpayer bailout.
Following passage of the legislation, Mr. Bowsher reportedly said the money is inadequate and could be wiped out by the failure of one large bank.
Rep. Gonzalez also said he plans to take another look at legislative efforts to modify or repeal the Glass-Steagall Act, the law that separates investment and commercial banking. He said the current financial system is "wobbly," adding, "What you have now is the law of the jungle, dog eat dog. And that's not good."
He said he plans to have officials from the Bush administration testify before his committee in January, "if not sooner," to present its side of the long-simmering bank powers debate. According to Rep. Gonzalez, the administration did not provide "satisfactory proof" that giving banks securities powers would improve the health of the financial system.
That lack of proof, he said, helped derail Glass-Steagall repeal efforts this year.
"We want to have the basis for action," Rep. Gonzalez said. "You can't blame the House if they didn't have the facts," he said, alluding to the House's overwhelming rejection of sweeping bank reform legislation in eary November. "Treasury never did give the fundamental basis for reform."
The Texan rejected the widespread view that Congress will be unable to fashion a comprehensive banking bill during an election year, saying he has "faith" in the lawmakers. "If you can provide the facts to the members, you can get it done," he said.
But in a move likely to send a chill through some banking circles, Rep. Gonzalez pledged to take a look at whether current bank securities powers should be reined in. In 1987, the Federal Reserve Board began giving some bank holding companies authority to establish affiliated empowered to underwrite bank-ineligible securities.
Rep. Gonzalez said he wants to determine whether safeguards established by the Fed to protect banks from the risks of securities activities are sufficient, but added that he has an open mind on the issue.
"I'll wait to see if legislation is recommendable, viable, or worthwhile," he said. However, he noted that the past several years have been "terrible" for the securities industry, reaffirming his skepticism about the wisdom of allowing investment and commercial banking entities to merge forces.
Other items on the committee's plate include: a need to provide more money to the Resolution Trust Corp. so it can complete the savings and loan cleanup; resumption of hearings into various bank scandals; hearings on the effect of bank mergers on the economy; and trying to find a way to use community development block grants to help struggling communities, such as Bridgeport, Conn.
Rep. Gonzalez said his panel's work will be difficult, but indicated that he never expected otherwise.
"The democratic process takes time and disorder," he said. "Those people who want neat packages -- that's just not the way our system works. But in the end, it's okay."