Primer: Getting the Most from a Capitol Hill Expedition

For most bankers, Washington politics takes a back seat to the bottom line. With the strain of rising capital standards, increased competition and slumping real estate markets, who has time to think about legislation?

But trade group lobbyists who work Capitol Hill day in and day out say nothing they do is as effective as having bankers sit down, eyeball to eyeball, with their elected representatives to hash over industry concerns.

"Real people who've got real dollars on the line," have impact with lawmakers, said Mark Burneko, a spokesman for the American Bankers Association.

"Bankers don't come to Washington enough," added J. Denis O'Toole, chief lobbyist for the U.S. League of Savings Institutions.

Few Opportunities Left in '91

Insurance agents, he noted, were all over the Capital this summer - at a time when banks lost ground to insurance interests in the powers debate.

Today, with Congress entering the final stretch of this year's legislative calendar, bankers have a last opportunity to make themselves heard on the legislation that would overhaul the financial services industry.

But getting the ear of Congress requires more than hopping a plane to Washington or dropping by a Hill office for a friendly visit. It's a carefully planned mission.

Dual-Purpose Trips

Bankers rarely come to Washington for the sole purpose of lobbying. Instead, they arrive on family vacations, business trips or - most frequently - to attend trade group meetings. Each offers an opportunity to make a pitch for industry concerns.

About 400 bankers and association officials convened in Washington in early September for the ABA's annual banking leadership conference. At the three-day meeting, members discussed legislative issues and plotted political positions for the year ahead.

ABA chief lobbyist Edward L. Yingling describes the leadership conferences as "the town meeting of the banking community."

Grasp of |Grass-Roots Efforts'

Members don't vote per se, but the Government Relations Council, which comprises 130 bankers, makes recommendations to the ABA board based on talks at the meeting.

While there, they hear Mr. Yingling brief on "major grassroots efforts" before sending them to the Hill en masse. Bankers receive briefing kits and prepare for questions they may be asked. "It's important that they prioritize the issues," Mr. Yingling said.

Trade group lobbyists often accompany bankers to meetings with legislators, said Dori Gillman, a lobbyist for the Independent Bankers Association of America.

The IBAA also tries to brief bankers on how to handle legislators, added Stephen Verdier, who lobbies House members for the small-bank organization.

Sidestepping Filibusters

"We try to tell them how to make their key points without the member filibustering them," he said.

"That's particularly a problem on the Senate side. Sometimes you get a Senator telling the banker what's going to happen, what they should do - almost like the banker is working for the senator, instead of the other way around."

The trade group's staff will help a banker rehearse his or her presentation, he said, but such help only goes so far.

"They have to believe in what they are saying," he explained.

Appointments, even if they are scheduled only a few days in advance - some Hill staffers would say a few weeks - are essential. Trade group staffers can help, but lawmakers are generally receptive to requests from the folks back home, especially if the constituent represents an important local business interest, as bankers and thrift executives generally do.

Joey Lucas, press secretary to Rep. Carroll Hubbard Jr., D-Ky., said making an appointment early is key. "It's impossible for the congressman to see everyone and to take phone calls from everyone," he said. If Mr. Hubbard can't meet with a banker, he makes available a staffer from his oversight and investigations subcommittee, Mr. Lucas said.

Of course, in addition to Washington excursions, many bankers catch members of Congress during weekends and breaks back in their districts.

Saugus Bank & Trust's president, Lawrence King of Massachusetts, discussed business in July with two representatives, one of whom was visiting from out of state.

In Quest of Listeners

An ABA Community Bankers Council member, Mr. King met with Rep. Nicholas Mavroules, D-Mass, of the Small Business Committee and Virginia Rep. James Moran, a Democrat who sits on the House Banking Committee. Mr. Moran, a Bostonarea native, was vacationing when he met with Mr. King.

Other bankers agreed it's important to stay in touch with elected representatives, even when the legislative process appears to be going against the industry.

"They don't always give us what we want, but they always listen," said Harold Stones, executive vice president of the Kansas Bankers Association.

Mr. Stones said he was especially pleased with the Kansas Bankers' visit to Washington this year, and the amount of time their congressman spent with them.

"You see, in Kansas, we don't feel 1,500 miles from Washington, we feel 15 million miles away," he explained.

"Our meetings gave Washington people the opportunity to hear the concerns of the heartland."

Ms. Healy, a freelance reporter, is based in Connecticut.

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