It is not easy being a new member of the House Banking Committee.
For starters, it is hard to get noticed on the 60-member panel, which is the third largest in the House, behind the Transportation and Appropriations committees.
Rep. Michael Capuano, a newly elected Democrat from Massachusetts, learned of that problem as he strained to catch the attention of House Banking Chairman Jim Leach during the second day of deliberations on financial reform legislation last month.
"Mr. Chairman?" called out Rep. Capuano, who this year went from the mayor's desk of Somerville, Mass., to the chair reserved for the lowest- ranking Democrat at the edge of House Banking's semicircular dais.
"Who seeks recognition?" Rep. Leach said, scanning the sprawling hearing room to pinpoint the disembodied voice.
"Way down in the corner," responded Rep. Capuano, waving his arms vigorously.
He is not alone in his struggle to overcome anonymity-not to mention the steep learning curve on subjects ranging from powers for bank subsidiaries to insurance sales rules. The committee has 14 new members this year, evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. All but two of these newcomers are freshmen in Congress.
Observers say that this year's new recruits are a particularly feisty bunch, and some have managed to make a mark early on.
Refusing to remain bystanders, Reps. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., John E. Sweeney, R-N.Y., and Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., posed some of the most fractious amendments of the three-day debate on financial reform.
Senior members of the committee had to intervene in these cases and craft bipartisan alternatives to prevent the otherwise smooth reform vote from grinding to a halt.
Rep. Inslee, who wanted to let new customers prevent their banks from disclosing information on their accounts, had the biggest impact.
Under his plan, a bank would have had to give new customers the chance to block information-sharing with any affiliate or outside party by notifying them how the data would be used and that they would have the right to "opt out." The bank would have been prevented from sharing or selling private information for 30 days unless the customer authorized disclosure sooner.
Industry lobbyists and some fellow lawmakers balked at the proposal, but the Washington Democrat fought hard to defend it.
Rep. Leach "was a little frustrated with an eager freshman's desire to take this up," Rep. Inslee said in a recent interview. But "to me this was an absolute minimum of privacy protection. The public is hungry for a lot more ... I just felt we would be doing a disservice to the country if the Banking Committee did not consider this privacy issue in the context of financial modernization."
The upstart was not afraid to poke fun at even his party's ranking member on the committee, Rep. John J. LaFalce, during the debate.
After Rep. Inslee agreed to Rep. Leach's request to withdraw his amendment so they could craft a bipartisan alternative overnight, Rep. LaFalce demanded that he and other top-level lawmakers be consulted, too. Rep. Inslee agreed, adding, "And all their children."
Part of the reason for his boldness is the fact that Rep. Inslee served in the House for a term in the early '90s before being defeated, moving to a new district, and winning reelection last year. He calls himself a "red- shirt freshman," borrowing the college sports term for sophomores who get to reclaim their first-year status because of an injury.
"It's not like I have never shaved before," he said. "I have been in this process before. That might have given me a little more gumption."
Rep. Leach and Democrat Bruce F. Vento countered Rep. Inslee's plan with a watered-down alternative that would require banks to disclose their privacy policies and make insurance company affiliates keep medical information confidential.
Rep. Inslee still refused to give in, complaining that the Leach-Vento plan was too weak and arguing that privacy was tantamount to other First Amendment rights. "Americans ought to have a freedom of speech, they ought to have a freedom of religion, and they ought to have a right to opt out of the bank's intent to use their transactional information for marketing and other purposes."
He criticized the notion that consumers could use disclosures to negotiate stronger privacy protections with their bank. "Imagine your grandmother going calling the CEO of a major national bank and saying, 'I heard your policy; let's sit down and negotiate it,'" he said. "It just doesn't work that way."
House Banking defeated the Inslee plan in favor of the Leach-Vento proposal, but Rep. Inslee vowed to restart the debate if the bill gets to the House floor.
Some freshman Republicans also were unafraid to tread onto dangerous ground.
Reps. Sweeney and Ryan tried to undo a Democratic amendment that the committee had adopted earlier in the debate which would have required the Federal Reserve Board to hold hearings in major metropolitan areas affected by mergers involving at least one federally insured financial institution with assets of more than $1 billion.
Their proposal, which was adopted on a 30-to-28 vote, would have given the Fed flexibility to decide whether such hearings were necessary. Industry officials preferred that approach because they feared added costs and delays for their mergers under the Democratic plan, but Democratic leaders vehemently objected to being trumped on procedural grounds.
"If this goes forward, the bipartisanship that we have had will come to an end (and) the chances of Congress passing this bill will come to an end," roared Rep. LaFalce after slamming his hand on the table.
Cooler heads prevailed the next morning, and the committee approved a bipartisan compromise endorsed by Reps. Sweeney and Ryan on the Republican side and Rep. Vento on the Democratic side. The final version said the Fed must hold hearings on mergers involving banks with assets of $1 billion or more in any markets where the Fed believes there will be "a substantial public impact."
Other freshman lawmakers have distinguished themselves, too.
Rep. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., received bipartisan compliments for an amendment that would preserve banks' ability to engage in equity and credit swaps without Securities and Exchange Commission regulation. The committee adopted it after he accepted a Democratic alteration that would limit the sale of equity swaps to sophisticated investors as defined by law.
And Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones-a freshman Democrat from Ohio who has been a county prosecutor and municipal judge-has already earned a reputation as an unabashed questioner who speaks loudly and deliberately into her microphone. During the debate on Rep. Toomey's amendment, for instance, she probed the argument that his proposal reprised a provision from last year's House Banking reform bill by asking who had changed it since then and why.
Despite some early victories, committee newcomers still have to stomach many indignities.
When Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., chimed in during the privacy debate from his seat at an overflow table shoved against the dais, he prefaced his remarks by saying: "Speaking from the kiddie table here ...."