WASHINGTON - With Congress set to adjourn for the year as early as Friday, banking industry lobbyists face tough odds as they make final pushes for a host of bills.
Their priorities remain bills that would offer tax breaks for investing in poor communities, increase retirement savings opportunities, and protect most private swaps contracts from government regulation.
"The party's not over yet," said Steve Bartlett, president of the Financial Services Roundtable. "We're going to fight to the last minute of the last hour of the last day."
Their best chances are with a tax package that would raise caps on investments in individual retirement accounts and 401(k) accounts and provide billions of dollars of tax breaks for "new markets" investments in poor communities. House and Senate leaders are putting the final touches on the measure, which is also expected to permit interest payments on business checking as early as May 2002. It remains unclear which day it would be voted on.
Meanwhile, the House was expected as early as Tuesday evening to approve a package of banking-related bills.
These include about 20 regulatory relief provisions, such as repealing the requirement that thrifts keep 4% to 10% of their assets liquid; providing more flexibility for electing bank directors by allowing staggered terms of up to three years; and permitting banks to own their own stock but avoiding conflicts of interest by prohibiting them from selling securities of their own stock.
Also included are measures that would extend to May 12 the Federal Home Loan Bank's deadline to issue new capital rules, allow the Federal Reserve Board to acquire an office building, and raise the salaries of Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan and his fellow governors. The bill would increase Mr. Greenspan's salary by $14,800, to $156,100. The other governors' wages would be $140,700, up $10,500.
The package also contains provisions that would reinstate a number of federal banking regulatory reports to Congress, including the Fed's annual survey of bank fees. The Fed Chairman also would be required to testify on the state of the economy at least twice a year, once before the House Banking Committee and once before the Senate Banking Committee.
Senate sources say the package is too little, too late. Among other things, Senate Banking Chairman Phil Gramm's objections to reinstating these reports significantly dampens their chances.
"This is a dangerous time of year for prognosticators, because historically bills that look like they are going through" die, and something that looks like it is dead, under the time pressure get done," said Edward L. Yingling, chief lobbyist for the American Bankers Association.
The Commodities Exchange Act, which passed the House last week without providing legal certainty to swaps contracts, is a prime example, he said.
"While people have gotten more and more concerned that it is stalling out, it is a prime example of a bill that could at the very last minute be worked out and enacted," Mr. Yingling said. What it has going for it is that everybody would like it done - the Clinton administration, key Democrats, and key Republicans.
One Senate aide, though, said that Sen. Gramm and Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., would probably kill the package if it is not amended to give the broad protections for banking products.
On the privacy front, industry lobbyists are optimistic that they have successfully negotiated a measure related to the sale and use of Social Security numbers; the measure is likely to be stapled to the appropriations bill funding the Commerce, Justice, and State departments.
"We believe we have agreement on language we can live with," Mr. Yingling said. "We want to limit the improper uses of Social Security numbers without impacting the traditional uses for legitimate commercial purposes."
Congressional privacy hawks have vowed to block the measure, which they say weakens existing consumer protections.
More certain is the fate of bankruptcy reform legislation. The Senate is expected to vote on the measure before going home for the year, but the President has repeatedly vowed to veto it.