House and Senate Republicans yesterday unveiled a newly revised version of a bill to revamp banking law, but the White House said the proposed legislation inadequately protected consumers, didn't resolve other issues and would still result in a presidential veto.
"The administration is disappointed," Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers said of the bill and of the Republicans' decision to work on it behind closed doors without the help of Democrats.
The 400-page legislation was cobbled together by House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach (R-Iowa), Senate Banking Committee Chairman Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) and House Commerce Committee Chairman Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.). It was supposed to be a compromise between banking bills that the House and Senate passed earlier this year, but Democrats yesterday denounced it as a partisan effort that failed to establish any middle ground.
"It's now time for the Republican Party to decide whether its own goal is a law or a veto," Rep. John J. LaFalce (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.), the senior Democrats on the House and Senate banking committees, said in a statement.
The revised bill will be the starting point for a meeting tomorrow of a conference committee charged with crafting a final compromise between the Senate and House bills. The legislation, which the financial services industry has pushed unsuccessfully for 20 years, would make it easier for banks, securities firms and insurance companies to merge and enter one another's businesses so that single companies could provide consumers with one-stop financial shopping.
Gramm said the bill showed he had made concessions to the administration on several key points, including on Consumer Reinvestment Act (CRA) rules that require banks to make loans to under-served consumers. Gramm dislikes the CRA, and the original Senate bill reflected his desire to weaken CRA requirements.
But congressional Democrats and Treasury officials disagreed, saying the revised version of the bill weakens the CRA by allowing all rural banks and many urban ones to be audited for CRA compliance once every five years, a reduction from once every 18 to 36 months under current practice.
Democrats also criticized the bill for what they said are inadequate protections for consumers on privacy and other issues. Gramm, Leach and Bliley said the revised bill essentially adopted privacy protections from the original House bill, but Democrats said the bill weakens those protections by broadening the circumstances when banks and other companies can share information on consumers without their permission.
Separately, an unusual alliance of liberals, conservatives and consumer groups--including consumer advocate Ralph Nader, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and conservative spokeswoman Phyllis Schlafly--announced yesterday that they have joined together to push for privacy provisions that are stronger than the ones contained in any versions of the bill. For example, the group favors making companies obtain written permission from customers before sharing information, even among affiliates.
Privacy advocates worry that the bills as written would give bankers, insurers and securities firms virtually unlimited license to share account data and other sensitive information.
But the issue that many congressional aides and financial industry lobbyists say is most contentious is whether the Federal Reserve Board or the Treasury will be the top bank regulator. The two agencies have been talking since August but have failed to reach a compromise. The White House has promised to veto any bill that favors the Fed over the Treasury, as it believes the revised bill does.