John L. von Seggern is no longer a dreaded sight on Capitol Hill.

As congressional liaison for the Office of Thrift Supervision through most of the S&L crisis, Mr. von Seggern's visits usually meant bad news to lawmakers.

Since becoming director of external affairs in July 1996, Mr. von Seggern has headed both congressional and press relations for the OTS. These days his role is to be an advocate for thrifts and help Congress sort out the tangle of charter reform and financial modernization.

"We want thrifts to be comfortable with the new charter," he says.

Among other things, that means letting them retain their focus on mortgage lending if they choose, preserving unitary thrift holding companies, and creating a mutual bank charter.

Though Mr. von Seggern concedes lawmakers still face tough choices, such as whether nonfinancial firms should be allowed to keep their thrift holdings, he says the charter debate isn't as agonizing as the S&L crisis.

"People on the Hill are basically asking about how the charter works," he says.

During most of his six years as a congressional liaison at the OTS, a visit from the genial former Air Force pilot usually resulted in an appeal for more money to clean up the S&L disaster or meant that the OTS was closing a thrift in a lawmaker's home district.

But since last year's bailout of the Savings Association Insurance Fund, his visits to the Hill are rarely painful, the 38-year-old Mr. von Seggern says.

Ironically his current task has been made easier by the crises of the early 1990s. Most lawmakers, or at least their staffers, understand the difference between a bank and thrift and are familiar with the extra powers savings associations want to preserve.

"The questions are more informed than they were originally," he says. "People understand the need for thrifts' lending flexibility and are familiar with thrift holding companies."

Although the OTS is expected to be absorbed by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency if Congress creates a new charter, Mr. von Seggern says that he and his colleagues aren't letting their agency's possible demise diminish their effort.

"We've been on the chopping block for so long, eventually you better figure out how to get along in this atmosphere," he says. "We're trying to move forward as a regulator."

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