WASHINGTON - Jeanne M. Roslanowick says she got into banking policy as many of her peers here did: "rather suddenly" and involuntarily.
After five years as a trade expert for Rep. John J. LaFalce, she was walking the halls of Congress one day in 1988 when her boss cornered her.
" 'Dear, I would like you to do my banking work,' " she recalls the New York Democrat and House Banking Committee member saying.
"But, sir, I've never done banking," she replied.
" 'That's all right. You'll pick it up.' "
More than a decade later, Ms. Roslanowick knows the ins and outs of banking law as well as anyone, and if the Democrats retake control of the House in 2000, she is poised to wield significant power as the Banking Committee's staff director.
Her start on Capitol Hill was serious on-the-job training, coinciding with some of the banking industry's darkest hours. She worked on the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act that bailed out the thrift industry in 1989, and on related legislation.
"In a way I was lucky to have gone through" all that, she says of her formative experiences in the late 1980s. "It was training in the trenches."
That experience prepared her to help write banking laws for the 21st century. As top banking aide to Rep. LaFalce, now the ranking Democrat on House Banking, she was a key player this year in enactment of the financial reform law. She helped write the 400-plus-page law that will ease the way for banks and thrifts to enter the securities and insurance businesses. She and fellow Democratic staff members worked particularly hard to draft protections on privacy and other consumer issues, as well as rules on new powers for direct bank subsidiaries.
Observers and coworkers describe her as smart and politically astute, and they say she is an apt right hand for a lawmaker whose credo is bipartisanship.
"They view her as somebody who is a pragmatic conciliator, who moves the ball forward" yet protects Rep. LaFalce's interests, said Karen Shaw Petrou, president of the ISD/Shaw consulting firm here.
Rep. LaFalce praises Ms. Roslanowick as "unbelievably productive" and someone with good judgment. The tough lawmaker says her knowledge of the issues and of himself is such that he listens when she advises easing up on an issue. "It is important to have someone like that around," he says.
But sources say Ms. Roslanowick can dish it out behind the scenes, as Republican staffers discovered during some of the tense, word-by-word negotiations over the reform law's community reinvestment requirements.
"She can be tough as nails and absolutely unyielding based on right reasons," Rep. LaFalce says. "She is nobody's pushover on any issue."
A native of Erie, Pa., Ms. Roslanowick earned degrees in English and political science at Marquette University and then a master's in public administration from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Before attending Yale Law School, she worked four years for the Massachusetts Department of Public Welfare.
She practiced for a while at the Washington law firm of Patton, Boggs, and Blow but yearned to return to government. She found out about the trade job with Rep. LaFalce through a friend in 1983. She says she still loves working on Capitol Hill, despite many people's disillusionment with politics today.
"I love the freedom to bring your mind openly to an issue and make your own judgments about what's the right policy response and not have the response preordained because you've got a client who needs that," she says. "It's that freedom of mind. It's a wonderful way to work."
She says House Banking staff members feel a sense of relief that reform is finally complete after years of failed attempts. They can now turn more of their attention to privacy issues, Internet banking, and reform of global financial markets and international aid institutions, she says.
"It will be fun to look at new things," she says. "There are a lot of other issues. The industry I think is going to change exponentially faster than it has changed over the last several decades."