"God knows, the odds are still against us," says one legislative aide about the chances for passage of the controversial safe banking bill in this session of Congress.
But the aide, Richard Still, staff director of the House Subcommittee on Financial Institutions whose chairman, Fernand St. Germain (D-R.I.), introduced the tough legislation, added hopefully, "We're going to give it all we have - this has got to be the year for it."
The act's very name is anathema to bankers who argue that banks are perfectly safe as is. The bill didn't make it through markup in the last session.
Blaming a flood of mail from "literally thousands of banks . . . a nation-wide campaign being orchestrated through the Washington offices of the American Bankers Association," St. Germain promised in October to "crank up again" in January.
For a time last session, it seemed as if revelations of wheeling and dealing by former Budget Director Bert Lance would grease the way for some sort of a bill.
A softer version passed the Senate, and last fall the ABA, fearful that the House version might have a chance, openly embraced the Senate measure, labeled S-71.
The House bill, which oen Treasury Department official described as "an incredible grab bag of stuff," covered 188 pages and contained 13 titles.
The bill would prohibit officers, directors and stockholders of banks from obtaining loans at correspondent banks. It would strengthen the regulatory power of banking authorities, require down payments for the acquisition of bank stock and set new standards for bank holding company acquisitions.
In mid-October, as the bill's chances faded, St. Germain introduced a slightly tamer version of the bill. For example, it simply called for disclosure of loans from correspondent banks instead of an outright ban.
In the end, the bill was talked to death by Rep. John Rousselot (R-Calif.), who insisted on a line-by-line reading of the bill during mark-up sessions. And no sooner had the reader reached the end of Title 1, than Rep. Clifford R. Allen (D-Tenn.) introduced an 81-page substitute, which he insisted be read line-by-line to the committee.
But staff director Still says St. Germain is ready to fight again for the bill in this session. And the congressman is threatening to hold up action on other legislation to get his way, Still says. Still says he does not expect a repeat of the line-by-line reading stall tactics. "Now the time is not on their side," he says.
He says that St. Germain is heartened by the precedent set by former Rep. Wright Patman (D-Tex.), who in 1975 took the unpopular Bank Holding Company Act to the floor and got it passed.
"St. Germain promises, win or lose, to take his cause to the floor through the amindatory process," says Still.
"What we want to do is get it there early, instead of waiting the customary three or four months."
Still warns that St. Germain also threatens to hold up other pending legislation. "Nothing else is going to get before us until we get a vote" on the safe banking measure, says Still.
This could hold up important legislation, some of it favored by the bankers.
For example, one bill awaiting markup by the full House Banking Committee would stiffen regulations on foreign banks doing business in the United States. Currently, foreign banks are free to open branches around the country, are not required to insure accounts, and are not required to maintain non-interest bearing reserves for the protection of depositors.
This legislation is favored by regional banks, which are troubled by foreign competition. It is opposed by big city banks, which fear retaliation against their foreign branches.
Another piece of legislation, which is favored by big bankers, would put a moratorium on interstate taxation of bank assets. The big banks are troubled because various state legislatures have come up with ways to tax the banks' out-of-state assets.
But what the bankers want most from Congress this year is legislation that would make them more competitive with savings and loan associations and savings banks.
The commercial bankers say they want to "close the interest gap" between thrift institutions and themselves. The troubles for them began in the early 1970s when New Hampshire allowed S&Ls to offer checking accounts.
Called NOW accounts (for negotiable order and withdrawal), these checking accounts by another name also earned interest of up to 5 per cent. A couple of years ago, Congress passed a bill that permitted NOW accounts to be offered in thrift institutions throughout New England.
Currently legislation is pending that would permit interest to be paid on checking accounts at thrift institutions nationwide.
In exchange for supporting the NOW legislation, commercial bankers want an amendment allowing them to offer interest rates on savings accounts comparable to those offered by savings banks and S&Ls.
"We want the same interest rates for everyone," says an ABA spokesman. "We may not give that much interest, but we at least want the right to do it."
"When Congress returns, the avalanche will be at hand," says Richard Peterson, an official at the Independent Bankers Association, which represents small, mainly rural U.S. banks. "It's going to be a very rough session for banking interests."