WASHINGTON After enacting the watershed Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act late last year, Congress was moving Friday to end its contentious two-year session with much less fanfare.
Lawmakers struggled to overcome snags holding up passage of the sessions final bill: a government funding package that contains little for the banking industry. The highlight for bankers in the final bill is a measure that would overhaul the Commodity Exchange Act to shield bank swaps from increased federal regulation. The legislation would, among other things, restrict nonbank regulators jurisdiction over wholesale swaps contracts executed by banks and establish a special test for determining which regulators would oversee new bank products.
Also in the package are the new markets-community development tax provisions that would increase by 40% tax credits for banks that make loans for low-income housing construction, as well as roughly $4 billion in new tax breaks over five years to banks and other companies that invest in poor communities.
As with all bills serving as the last legislative vehicle of the year, measures helpful or harmful to bankers could be quietly inserted at the last moment. There may be a couple of eye openers nobody was aware of, said J. Mark Leggett, Bank of Americas lead lobbyist. But the final package is more noteworthy for what it does not contain.
The community development tax breaks were the only provisions to survive among a number of tax measures sought by bankers. Others would have raised limits on contributions to individual retirement accounts and 401(k) plans, authorized banks to pay interest on corporate checking accounts, and created a special tax-deferred savings account for farmers and ranchers.
Also absent is a netting bill to prevent a financially harmful domino effect when companies holding a large number of derivatives contracts go bankrupt. Currently, insolvent companies can collect what they are owed, but are delayed by usually drawn-out bankruptcy proceedings from paying their debts. The legislation would keep the contracts from being frozen in bankruptcy proceedings and allow the counterparties to reconcile, or net out, their obligations on paper and reduce the solvent parties losses.
House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach attempted to attach the netting provisions which are part of major bankruptcy reform legislation that is not expected to be enacted this year but was blocked by Sens. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, and Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, who did not want to move any piece of the bankruptcy bill separately, leadership sources said.
Though the bankruptcy bill, which the President plans to veto, had passed the House and Senate by veto-proof majorities, Congress is not expected to return to Washington this week to attempt an override.
Efforts also failed last week to include an amendment that would help SunTrust Banks Inc. recover $17 million it has sought from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. in a dispute over premium payments. House Appropriations Chairman C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., decided late last week not to push the amendment originally sought by defeated Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla. after getting an emphatic thumbs-down from Rep. Leach.
This is a philosophical outrage that will be embarrassing to the Congress and the Republican Party, Rep. Leach said in a letter Thursday to Rep. Young. A giveaway of the nature contemplated involves a totally unwarranted substitution of congressional judgment for judicial judgment that both injures and outrages taxpayers and other financial institutions not similarly benefited and which potentially will have to pick up the tab if the FDIC fund weakens.
Congressional and White House negotiators also used the final bill of the year to remove from the Commerce-Justice-State appropriations bill a privacy amendment intended to block the sale of Social Security numbers over the Internet. The industry supported the amendment, which would have allowed the continued use of Social Security numbers for customer identification and other such commercial purposes.
The last-minute removal is a slight setback, industry lobbyists said. The same arguments we had to make this year, were going to have to make even more strongly next year to new lawmakers and Bush administration policymakers, said John Byrne, a senior counsel at the American Bankers Association.