Nothing is more valuable to Lamar Smith, Visa International's Washington lobbyist, than the undivided attention of the government people he needs to know and influence.

He knows just where to create the right atmosphere - a top-secret off- site location where telephones and other irritants can't interrupt.

It is Visa's data processing "supercenter" in suburban McLean, Va.

Since last September, Mr. Smith has taken 25 people in small groups - all of them staff members of freshmen on the Senate and House banking committees - on the 25-minute drive from the Capitol for a two-to-three- hour tour of the McLean facility.

His motivation is not just to provide an unusually intimate insight into how the bank card association clears transactions electronically from all over the world.

"If they have a better understanding, then we can go to them with amendments," said Mr. Smith, whose title is vice president of government relations.

It is a game played by all Capitol Hill lobbyists, but Mr. Smith has found a way to cut through the usual clutter of power lunches and cocktail parties.

The legislative people know the game, but they also have a thirst for information and can appreciate Mr. Smith's unusual approach to satisfying it.

"We realize there is a bias, a slant, in the information that we get (from lobbyists) but you can't get this kind of research and information anywhere else," said Shelly Berlin, legislative director for Rep. Dick Chrysler, R-Mich.

Once the information is in hand, "we can run the Visa research by the Congressional Budget Office to check it out," Ms. Berlin said. She said the budget office will not originate such research, but it can play a supporting role.

On one recent Friday morning, Mr. Smith rented a van to transport Ms. Berlin, Bill Himpler, legislative director for Rep. Jerry Weller, R.-Ill., and a reporter to the McLean supercenter.

The largest of the four interchange centers, or technology hubs, in Visa's global payments network, it is a surreal, self-contained world. With its air of militaristic preparedness, Mr. Himpler said it conjured up images from a Tom Clancy novel. System failures are simulated in order to stave off "complacency," as one Visa staffer put it.

For security reasons, Visa does not permit photographs to be taken of the building's exterior. Visitors must pledge not to divulge details or clues about the exact location. The possibility of terrorist attack is not ruled out.

Signs in each control room explain the power and function of the various systems required to operate the Visa network.

One sign informs visitors that the facility can run on its own electrical power for up to six days in the event of a local outage. Another sign notes that the cooling system has the capacity to meet the needs of 300 medium-size homes.

The facility is designed to be impervious to natural forces such as severe electrical storms and even earthquakes. Even if the worst happens, supercenters in Basingstoke, England, and San Mateo, Calif., can provide backup support.

As Mr. Smith and three Visa executives led the government employees through numerous rooms connected by long windowless corridors and filled with sophisticated computers, it was clear that machines outnumbered people.

Only 78 employees populate the sprawling facility. Most of the rooms have electronic sensors that cut off the lights if there is no human movement detected for 15 minutes.

"What is the significance of all this?" Mr. Smith asked nearly an hour into the tour. "It has to do with economic policy and the evolution of the payment system."

The congressional staffers listened attentively as Mr. Smith talked about the future of the card industry and how it depends on less government involvement in such areas as data encryption and smart-card technology.

Mr. Smith, 52, is more teacher than mere tour guide. His significant experience in and understanding of the government is apparent.

Before joining Visa he was Republican staff director of the Senate Banking Committee, and prior to that he was chief economist at Texas Commerce Bank.

Mr. Smith wrote his doctoral thesis on the public policy implications of electronic fund transfers.

"We are a competitor of the Federal Reserve in the automated clearing house," he explained. "The question is, why does the government need to be in this business?"

While Visa is not planning to propose legislative amendments in the near future, it sees several issues that could present problems for the credit card industry down the road.

"With all of the new products coming out, there are lots of potential conflicts between new technologies and laws that were written in a different environment," said Mr. Smith.

Mr. Smith and his counterparts at MasterCard - Charlotte Rush, vice president of public affairs, and William P. Binzel, director of government relations - are worried that the government's instinct will be to rush to regulate smart cards under the Electronic Funds Transfer Act. There are no laws regulating smart cards, because the technology and industry standards are still being developed.

Under the 1978 EFT law, when an electronic transaction at a merchant site or ATM is completed, the consumer must be provided with a detailed receipt as well as a periodic statement from the financial institution issuing the card. This requirement would impede further development of smart card technology, the associations argue.

The often-cited example showing how cumbersome and backward legislation could be in this area is the requirement for a receipt each time a stored- value card is used in a soda vending machine.

Another area of concern for Visa and MasterCard revolves around their development of sophisticated encryption, or data-scrambling, systems that would be used to secure transactions over computer networks.

"We don't want to be inhibited (by the government) from developing this technology," said Mr. Binzel.

Like Mr. Smith, Mr. Binzel has been busy meeting with the 18 new members of the House Banking Committee, 16 of them new to the Congress and almost all of them with little if any experience in banking.

The idea behind these meetings, "is getting to know people when there is no crisis situation," said Ms. Rush.

Given the business-friendly nature of the new Republican majority, the banking and bank card industries do not expect to be caught by surprise the way they were in 1991, when Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., nearly passed a bill putting an interest rate cap on credit card loans.

Having learned their lesson, Visa and MasterCard are taking steps to be proactive.

Ms. Berlin said Congress is interested in such payment innovations as smart cards and electronic benefits transfer, but the card industry is not yet one of its top priorities. Nor is there much reason for concern that the government will soon focus on payments made over the Internet.

As part of Visa's "let's get acquainted" tactic, congressional staffers receive a comprehensive notebook outlining the history of the payments industry, how it operates, and how important it is to the national economy as well as many local markets.

According to Visa, approximately half of the dollars charged to credit cards last year incurred no finance charge, which translated to $140 billion in interest-free loans.

The association also points out that "tens of thousands of jobs" have been created in states like Delaware, South Dakota, Ohio and Arizona, which are particularly receptive to the bank card industry. The median annual salary for those jobs is almost $10,000 higher than for other nonmanufacturing jobs. The employees earn billions in wages, and the states and localities benefit from increased income tax revenues.

Furthermore, the payment system industry has fostered the growth of other businesses, such as mail order companies.

In a similar vein, MasterCard has compiled background material, titled "A Legislator's Guide to the Bank Card Industry."

Toward the end of the Visa tour, Mr. Himpler and Ms. Berlin seemed oversaturated with information about how the association operates.

The meeting extended beyond three hours, including 50 minutes in the van discussing debit cards, the potential elimination of automated teller machines, and the difference between on-line and off-line debit products. Mr. Smith had accomplished his mission.

Mr. Himpler, late for a luncheon appointment, bailed out of the van, giving Mr. Smith an opening to spend another hour indoctrinating Ms. Berlin - at a fashionable D.C. restaurant.

Over salad, iced tea, and pasta, the two Washington insiders indulged in some mutually beneficial information sharing.

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