"Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it," the saying goes. Likewise, bankers frequently complain about the actions of federal and state lawmakers but do little to avert such actions.

True, there are problems in getting sympathy for an industry that not only lends money but also actually wants people to pay it back. Far too many think that banks are public service organizations whose job is to hold money, pay interest on it, and then give it back immediately - without charge.

What can bankers do about this? Much of the answer is education - informing the public and the lawmakers themselves that the policies you favor are truly in the public interest.

Legislators and the public were all for usury ceilings on home loans. But when bankers showed that those artificially low mortgages rate ceilings led not to cheaper mortgages but rather to no mortgages, the ceilings were eliminated.

Similarly, support for prohibition on automated teller machine surcharges for noncustomers has faded with the public's realization that the banks really mean business - that if the choice is between losing money on the ATM service or not offering it at all, banks will choose the latter. And the fact that people pay these charges shows that the service is worth paying for.

How can bankers get lawmakers to hear their side of the story? Access is the immediate responsibility of state and national trade association executives. They're the ones who must get to know the lawmakers personally.

One way trade groups can win legislators' trust is by warning of the drawbacks to proposals the industry is pushing. That way, lawmakers can weigh the pros and cons and make better-informed decisions about what is in the public interest.

But trade association executives stress that the real key to access is not their own work and contacts. Rather, they say, it falls to individual bankers to reach their representatives and explain personally what is at stake in a given legislative debate.

That is the secret of the successes that the credit unions and many thrift groups have had. They agree among themselves about what they want to achieve and then decide which bankers will go to which lawmakers to present their case.

Insurance trade associations can convene hundreds of agents in Washington or the state capitals to support or oppose legislation.

But bankers all too often support only those who agree with them. Then, if the other side wins and the banker visits the winner, he is asked: "Why didn't you support me before?" The answer, of course, though the banker probably won't actually say it, is, "I didn't think you would win."

And even in deciding how to channel legislation, many trade associations find that they have an impossible job, because different blocs of members support different legislative goals.

Still, trade group executives say their most difficult task, and the most important, is rallying their members to personally join the fight. Unfortunately, most trade group executives would agree that their job description should read, "To lead the members - and pretend they are following." Mr. Nadler, an American Banker contributing editor, is professor of finance at Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.