WASHINGTON -- A key member of the House Banking Committee last week urged prompt congressional approval of narrow legislation to recapitalize the Bank Insurance Fund, a move that could further cloud the chances for passage this year of comprehensive legislation to allow banks into the securities business.
Rep. Frank Annunzio, D-Ill., sent a letter last week to House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., asserting that the recent failure of five New Hampshire banks had pushed the und "to the brink of, if not into, insolvency."
Rep. Annunzio, chairman of the House Banking Committee's financial institutions subcommittee, added, "The Bank Insurance Fund is in such a disastrous state that it may be simply a matter of time, perhaps measured in days or weeks, when there will not be enough insurance money to pay off bank depositors."
As a consequence, he said there may not be enough time to pass broader legislation currently pending in Congress that would recapitalize the insurance fund and allow banks into new fields, such as municipal revenue bond underwriting.
Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady has said the new powers are necessary to ensure that the fund remains solvent once it is recapitalized. He has said that by allowing banks to diversify their activities, they will become more strongly capitalized and more resilient in financial stress.
Rep. Annunzio told Rep. Foley he is not urging Congress to forget about the bank powers bill.
"This letter is not to suggest that bank reform legislation be abandoned, but, rather, that the Bank Insurance Fund recapitalization bill be moved to the House floor immediately," he said. "Once that legislation is on the statute books, then we should consider bank reform legislation."
But the bank powers provisions do not enjoy broad support on Capitol Hill and are being pushed most ardently by a relatively small cadre of lawmakers. Many members have said are uncomfortable voting to grant banks more leeway in their affairs on the heels of a multi-billion-dollar savings and loan industry bailout and an obvious need to pump up the Bank Insurance Fund.
Without the recapitalization measure as an engine to pull the bank reform provisions along, supporters believe the legislation is unlikely to be enacted.
Another factor that may work against approval of broad bank reform legislation is an increase in partisan bickering. When Rep. Annunzio's subcommittee last week approved legislation to continue funding the Resolution Trust Corp.'s thrift cleanup efforts, only one Republican voted for the measure.
Republicans voted against the bill because of a provision that would require $60 billion of the $80 billion the measure would provide to be paid for with a combination of tax increases and spending cuts. The general practice has been to fund the cleanup with off-budget borrowing.
Rep. Chalmers Wylie of Ohio, the panel's senior Republican, said that unless the legislation is changed, the bill will not receive bipartisan support.
Partisan strife may increase once the Senate completes deliberations on the nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court. Judge Thomas, who currently sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, has been accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill, a former associate at the Education Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where Judge Thomas was chairman.
During the confirmation hearings, panel members began lobbing potshots one another as Republicans attempted to discredit Ms. Hill and Democrats sought to undermine the denials of Judge Thomas.
Under such conditions, it is unclear whether bank reform legislation being sought by the Republican Bush administration can clear the Democratic-controlled Congress.