The public is more angry, disillusioned, and bewildered about the political system than at any time since the Great Depression, with the possible exception of the Vietnam-Watergate era.

The public's wrath, directed at both major parties, is reflected in the certainty of an enormous turnover in Congress this year. And it's strikingly evident in the tremendous appeal of Ross Perot.

Here is a man who has never held elective office, who has yet to declare his candidacy, and whose views on the issues are unknown, and he is running ahead of both the President and his likely Democratic challenger in the polls.

Ignoring the Signals

With all of this unrest, one would think our political leaders would take a good hard look at the way they have been doing business and begin to change their ways.

But for some reason inexplicable to me, everywhere I look I see more of the same old behavior that has led to the mess we're in today.

I could cite innumerable examples in various fields, but one example of tremendous import to banks and their customers will suffice. It was recently reported that the Treasury Department has offered a sweetener to the Independent Bankers Association of America on the proposed interstate branch banking legislation.

In order to garner the group's support for the legislation, the Administration is purportedly willing to bar banks from branching de novo into communities of fewer than 50,000 people. This is precisely the kind of back-room, special-interest bargaining that has so thoroughly turned off the public.

The banking system is in dire straits largely because of laws, such as those restraining branching, that have prevented the industry from restructuring itself to keep pace with marketplace realities.

The taxpayers have already been called upon to pony up some $200 billion to clean up the thrift industry debacle, and it seems pretty obvious that the banking industry is not far behind unless dramatic structural reforms are implemented soon.

The Treasury Department and the federal banking agencies have for years been of the unanimous view that branching restrictions are inappropriate.

They weaken the banking system by increasing operating costs, limiting opportunities for sensible diversification in bank loan portfolios, and shielding marginal banks from competition.

The restrictions have hurt taxpayers by needlessly running up the losses suffered by the deposit insurance system.

Absence of Dissent

They have hurt bank customers by denying them access to the best and most competitively priced banking services.

I know of no expert outside of government who would take serious issue wit any of the foregoing.

If there are experts who would like to argue the economic, as opposed to political, case against branch banking, let them come forward and be heard.

The burden of proof should be on those who would attempt to interfere with the functioning of the marketplace - on those who would plead for continuation of special-interest protections.

Firm Decision Needed

Let them justify to the taxpayers why we should continue to pander to the kind of special-interest concerns that played no small part in creating the massive taxpayer losses in the thrift industry.

Once we have heard all the arguments, let's have a straight up or down vote on the issue. If we decide that branching will be good for the country, then let's make it available to all.

It's outrageous that our political leaders would even consider denying to the citizens of a town of 8,000 people (the size of my hometown, incidentally) access to the best banking services available.

These people deserve every bit as much consideration and opportunity as those in larger cities.

If the "hometown" bank is doing its job, I can't imagine why its customers would turn to an out-of-town bank.

If the local bank is not doing its job, it doesn't deserve and shouldn't receive special protection.

Let the Market Decide

The same goes for the other special-interest groups - the insurance agents come immediately to mind - that are attempting to feather their nests at public expense.

If branch banking will be good for the country, then let's vote it in and let these groups fend for themselves in the marketplace.

The public's message in 1992 couldn't be any clearer. We are tired of business as usual in Washington.

We want leaders who will make the tough choices on the problems facing our nation. If our current leaders aren't listening to this message, we will find some who will.

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