WASHINGTON Presidents may tremble before the power of the press, but the banking industry took on the fourth estate and won.
The Community Development and Regulatory Improvement Act, signed by President Clinton Sept. 23, knacked out a rule that had required banks to publish their quarterly financial statements in newspapers.
Banking groups praised the action, but a newspaper trade group is demanding a rematch on the issue.
"Publishing in the newspaper was an unnecessary expense for banks," said Karen Thomas, regulatory counsel for the Independent Bankers Association of America. "The call report information is readily available at the banks."
Lee Stenehjem Jr., director of First International Bank and Trust in Watford City, N.D., is happy to be relieved of the publishing burden.
"It's one less regulatory requirement... one less expense," Mr. Stenehjem said.
Neal Shipman, publisher of the weekly McKenzie County Farmer in Watford City, said a bank would spend only about $100 a year to run the reports in his paper.
However, he thinks the lack of published information will be more of a hardship on bank customers.
"Would you feel comfortable walking in to your bank and asking for financial information? I don't think anybody would ask for it," Mr. Shipman said.
The newspapers aren't down for the count. The National Newspaper AssOciation fought back in October by mobilizing its members to contact their congressional representatives and ask for a reconsideration of this issue.
"Congress did not sufficiently look at how the public will be informed. This provision wasn't called to their attention when they voted on the bill,"said Tonda Rush, president of the association, which represents 3,600 weekly and 600 small daily papers.
A member of the Senate Banking Committee staff disagreed with Ms. Rush's contention that members may not have been aware of this item.
"This provision was in the bill marked up in committee in September 1993. There weren't hearings on all 50 of the relief measures, but it's not the case that they weren't aware of what was going on. I don't think it snuck by anybody," he said.
In an Oct. 26 letter to members of Congress, Edward Yingling of the American Bankers Association strongly rebuked the newspaper association, saying that the publishers were primarily complaining about lost advertising revenue.
"A desire to pad the newspaper industry's coffers by raising unsubstantiated fears of banking industry solvency, cloaked under the guise of protecting the public's right to know, is reprehensible, and should not be the basis for determining public policy," Mr. Yingling wrote.
Mr. Yingling added that the average person doesn't get much from the reports anyway.
"Statements of resources and liabilities are technical financial statements which virtually no newspaper reader would have any interest in reading," he said.
The publishers association responded with a Nov. 1 letter of its own to Congress.
"We do not ask Congress to examine this question in light of our advertising dollars," the letter said.
"Rather we ask the Congress to look only at the public interest and to ask itself whether the minor burden of publication. is outweighed by the benefit of requiring publicly regulated and pub, licly insured institutions to take affirmative steps to inform their ultimate insurers of insolvency," they added.
Ms. Rush said many of her association's members have talked with their congressional delegations about this issue and have been pleased with the response.
Fran Callanan, a spokeswoman for Representative Lynn Schenk, D-Calif., said her boss is willing to take a second look at the issue.
Also, Senator Jeff Bingaman, D.N.M., said at the New Mexico Press Association's convention Oct. 21, that he was in favor of requiring banks to publish their financial information, according to Morrow Hall, president of the association. Neither lawmaker sits on the banking committee, however.