Public policy sometimes seems like a private game played only by Washington insiders. But in every major legislative drive, a number of important plays are run by people outside the Washington Beltway.

Many achieve influence because of campaign contributions that flow from deep pockets. A few sway legislation on the merit of their ideas. Some bankers work behing the scenes, exercising their muscle outside the spotlight of public hearings.

"People on the Hill look to successful practitioners, to those who run a solid shop. They reflect the real world," said Kenneth A. McLean, a lobbyist who was Senate Banking Committee staff directors for years under former Sen. William Proxmire, D-Wis.

Buffet's 'Invisible' Presence

Warren Buffet is an old pro at working the Washington crowd. So many lawmakers seek reassurance from the Omaha-based investor that he "has become a cult figure on Capitol Hill," Mr. McLean said.

He added that Mr. Buffet most frequently works behind the scenes, pulling legislative strings in private conversations with key staff employees and members of Congress.

"We tried on a number of occasions to get Buffet to testify," Mr. McLean said. "He wouldn't come in. But he would talk to us."

Corrigan's Staying Power

This year, a number of out-of-towners shaped congressional thinking on key elements of the banking reform bill, including John G. Medlin Jr., chairman of Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Wachovia Corp.

E. Gerald Corrigan, president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, fought long and hard behind the scenes against efforts to drop the barriers separating banking and commerce.

He lost the battle for the heart and mind of Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, who ultimately backed the recommendation of his staff that the Bank Holding Company Act's ownership prestrictions be dropped.

But Mr. Corrigan appears to have won the war, nonetheless. The Senate Banking Committee voted out a bill that preserves the separation. And even members of the House Banking Committee who sided with Mr. Brady were rattled by Mr. Corrigan's warnings. Some privately expressed gratitude that other congressional panels would "save us from ourselves."

Bryan's Bright Idea

Also influential this year is McKinsey & Co. consultant Lowell Bryan. The New York-based Mr. Bryan is a frequent witness on banking issues, and his views are given considerable respect.

This year, Mr. Bryan went well beyond the role Congress usually assigns a consultant - that of conferring respectability on a chairman's pet project. He has sparked a legislative initiative of his own.

Mr. Bryan started almost from scratch with a radical new vision of the banking industry. In his world of "core banking," depository institutions would be limited to making very small loans - so small, in fact, that they would be effectively barred from financial all but the smallest companies.

They would also be limited in the rates they could pay for deposits. The idea of a new Regulation Q - even the floating-rate version Mr. Bryan proposed - combined with strict limits on loans to one borrower, struck most observers as hopelessly offbeat.

Mailing 537 Books

Together with Greg Wilson, a former Treasury official and congressional aide, Mr. Bryan worked to develop support for core banking, one vote at a time. He mailed copies of his book, Bankrupt, to all 537 members of the House and Senate, and he patiently met with groups of lawmakers and staffers.

"It's been kind of a mushrooming effect," said Mr. Wilson. Aides to Rep. Doug Barnard, D-Ga., were intrigued by the idea, and that led to an invitation to discuss it before Rep. Barnard's government operations subcommittee.

Then Rep. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., picked up the proposal and generated more invitations to testify: before the House Banking Committee and its subcommittee on financial institutions.

"It's been extremely difficult," said Mr. Wilson. "All we had going for us the strength of an idea. I wasn't optimistic at first."

Victory Next Time?

Yet Mr. Bryan has won a considerable following this year, so much so that bank trade groups are afraid Rep. Schumer might just be able to pull off a victory on the House floor.

The conventional wisdom is that core banking will fail this year. But a corollary to the conventional wisdom holds that it will be discussed again in the next Congress and could soon win enough converts to become the law of the land.

Another issue that has developed respectability over time is interstate branching. And that idea owes its strength in no small part to the efforts of North Carolina National Bank and its Charlotte-based lobbyist, Mark Legget.

"NCNB started holding interstate meetings a year ago," recalled Marty Farmer, the Orlando, Fla.-based lobbyist for Barnett Banks Inc. Those meetings gave out-of-town lobbyists for big regional banks a chance to share information and talk about strategy.

Hostage to Bush Bill

The prospects for undiluted nationwide interstate branching appear to be growing dim but only because the Bush administration's banking bill has become ensnared in a number of controversies.

Despite misgivings of the Independent Bankers Association of America, state regulators, and a number of consumer groups, NCNB and its allies have forged a consensus among lawmakers in favor of interstate branching.

The resurgent Bank of America has also played a key behind-the-scenes role on the banking bill. "They have always been opinionated, and they have credibility right now because they are almost the number one largest bank," said one lobbyist.

A paper that Bank of America drafted to assert the damage that escalating insurance premiums could cause was widely circulated on Capitol Hill.

Barnett Bank's Mr. Farmer enjoys unparalleled access among bank lobbyists, in no small part because of the vigorous political action committee he spearheaded within Barnett's network of Florida banks. This PAC, Barnett People for Better Government, raises $400,000 a year - $800,000 for each two-year election cycle - making it far and away the industry's largest such single-institution political contributor.

Still, Mr. Farmer - while conceding the gigantic benefits that come from his outsized PAC - argued that money is not the determining factor who is listened to.

"For a lobbyist, it comes down to credibility," he said.

While Barnett Banks has a closer relationship with House Majority Whip David Bonior, D-Mich., Mr. Farmer said that relationship would evaporate in a minute if Rep. Bonior ever found he couldn't trust information from Barnett.

Home-State Congressmen

"And you can always get in the door of your home-state congressmen," Mr. Farmer added. For the multistate banks taking shape, that translates into a lot of legislators.

Trade groups based outside Washington also have a big impact on the process. Paul Schosberg, a former congressional aide, was named president of the New York League of Savings Institutions primarily "to give the league a presence in Washington," he said.

These days, he said, he spends so much time in Washington that "I feel like I never left the Hill." The New York organization's best lobbying efforts are made back home, Mr. Schosberg said, however.

"I'm not a big believer in these one-day fly-ins," he said. "They are expensive, time consuming, and you rarely get quality time" with a lawmaker.

Catching Them at Home

Most legislators spend Friday through Monday back in their districts, a schedule that allows plenty of time for meetings with constituents. "At home, you get quality time," he said.

Other out-of-town influentials include:

* Academics. For example, Dan brumbaugh and James Barth helped persuade lawmakers that the Bank Insurance Fund, which a year ago was regarded as rock solid, faced big problems.

* Former officials. Most are treated with respect on Capitol Hill, particularly if they held well-regarded while they held officer.

Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, testifies rarely before congressional committees, but his views continue to carry weight. A letter he wrote to Senate Banking Committee Chairman Donald W. Riegle Jr., D-Mich., helped sway attitudes on the banking vs. commerce issue.

* Joe Sixpack. Members of Congress read their mail, or at least they red the summaries prepared by staff members. Voters who write about specific issues may not carry the weight of a lobbyist with a PAC, but they are heard, nonetheless. And in sufficient numbers, they are ignored only at great political risk.

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