I recently visited Herbert C. Klein, two-term New Jersey assemblyman and one-term congressman who served on the House Banking Committee until the Republican sweep of 1994 put him back in the private sector.
My goal was to learn what bankers can do to have more clout with Congress and their state legislatures. Mr. Klein, now on the other side of the street as a banking lawyer for Hannoch Weisman of Roseland, N.J., seemed an awfully good place to turn.
Herb naturally stressed that having a former legislator on your side - someone who knows the administration and Capitol Hill and its staff people - can be a tremendous asset in getting your views to the right people.
But, he added, this is not a sure route to success. It could even be a big mistake.
He explained: "Every ex-lawmaker has a reputation.
"If he was known as being ethical and fair, and built up friends in Washington or his state capital, he will be received and welcomed when he comes back representing the views of the client.
"But if he made enemies in his term in office, or if he developed a reputation for disseminating bull, then he can do the client more harm than good."
In sum, Klein's warning: Do your homework before you pick someone to represent you.
What major mistakes do bankers make in pleading their cases before the banking committee staff or the administration?
Klein listed several of them:
*Not knowing what you want to achieve, so you just waste people's time.
*Being unrealistic about what you want, like asking for a complete elimination of the CRA.
*Not realizing that for an official to push your proposal, it must involve some public good, like reinvestment in the community.
Asked for an example of a valid proposal, Herb talked about his bill to increase the size limits for Federal Housing Administration mortgages - a proposal that passed the House but was bottled up in the Senate.
"A size limit that is fine for Kansas will be too low for New Jersey," he said.
So Herb broached his proposal to Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez, who was the Democratic chairman of the banking committee. Then, after working with people at the Treasury Department, the Resolution Trust Corp., and the FHA, Herb explained the plan to both sides of the committee in terms obviously fair enough to win House approval.
How do bankers go about getting known by their congressmen?
Klein says that while many feel contributions to a campaign can be the key to a good relationship, it is far more important to get the lawmaker to realize that you are honest and fair and your positions are reasonable.
When a new congressman comes in, arrange to meet him or her, Herb suggests. If this is not possible, meet the chief of staff.
Just talk about your business and how Washington affects it. Nothing more. Later on, if you have something specific to discuss, your access will be far easier.
Invite the congressman to come to your office when he or she is in town. In sum, get known as something more than a contributor or potential contributor.
What about inviting congressmen to your banking conventions?
Herb Klein was as horrified as the rest of us about the stories of congressmen going to conventions and engaging in abuses like buying a set of golf clubs at the pro shop and putting them on the room bill that the association picks up.
"When I was invited to speak at a convention," he said, "I stayed just long enough to deliver my talk, to avoid any accusations of excess."
Herb agreed that conventions are the best time for socializing and getting known by bankers or any other group. But he feels they are inappropriate places for solidifying contacts with the industry.
He points to the temptations of getting too friendly - and the risk of having the press report on a congressman's three-day vacation at the industry's expense.
Honesty, credibility, and realism are the best keys to relations with lawmakers, Herb Klein feels.
Anyone who is honest, forthright, and lays out the facts fairly should have access to a lawmaker, he said. "This, not obligations to contributors, should determine who gets the lawmaker's ear."
But I wonder how many readers, thinking back to their own experiences, will consider Mr. Klein's views a wish list rather than reality.
Mr. Nadler is a contributing editor of the American Banker and professor of finance at Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.