Just a month on the job, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Phil Gramm is finding that it is harder to be a leader than an agitator.
The maverick Texas Republican used procedural tactics late in last year's session to block financial reform legislation because, he complained, the bill would have extended the Community Reinvestment Act to nonbanks and strengthened community activists.
This year, having inherited the chairmanship from former Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, Sen. Gramm declared that his panel would vote on financial reform by the end of February. However, he is contemplating so many changes in last year's bill that quick action is unlikely.
Sen. Gramm's bill-a draft was due today but has been pushed back a week- reportedly abandons compromises that were brokered by Sen. D'Amato on insurance and other issues. Sen. Gramm is also expected to permit cross- ownership of banks and commercial businesses, free rein for unitary thrift holding companies, broader powers for bank operating subsidiaries, and other controversial provisions.
Such changes are sure to antagonize Democrats as well as banking and insurance lobbyists, and sources said this week that committee Republicans raised concerns that Sen. Gramm's package would be politically untenable.
At the same time, Sen. Gramm's expanding crusade against CRA has drawn criticism from many quarters-including President Clinton. The President blasted CRA critics in a Feb. 1 speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
"This ought not to be a political deal," he said. "Unbelievably enough, when we are proving it is working, the Community Reinvestment Act is under attack again."
"That's the strongest defense of CRA that the President has made yet," said Patrick Woodall, policy analyst for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.
Sen. Gramm fired off a response, telling the President that CRA is "extortion" and "bribery." The same day, Sen. Gramm criticized the involvement of examiners in a search by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency for bankers to speak up on behalf of CRA. His probe has extended to the Office of Thrift Supervision.
Activists called Sen. Gramm a hypocrite because he wants the Federal Reserve Board to survey banks about their CRA experiences. "He clearly wants anti-CRA stories, and he has immense power over regulators and banks," said Hubert Van Tol, president of Bank Watchers in Sparta, Wis., a consulting firm for community groups.
A Senate Banking Committee spokeswoman disagreed, arguing that the nature of Sen. Gramm's request is "completely different" from the OCC's lobbying effort. She said he is merely seeking facts about bank contributions to community groups and other CRA practices. "There is no prejudgement of what we expect the Federal Reserve to find," she said.
She added that the delay in releasing Sen. Gramm's draft bill is brief and that talks among Republicans are "part of how you make legislation."
Fortunately for Sen. Gramm, the spotlight this week will shift to House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach's financial reform hearings set for Wednesday through Friday.