CONGRESS HAS spent so many years trying to reform the laws regulating banks and other financial institutions that it would be rash to predict success in this session. It's true that the House and Senate now agree on what was for years the most contentious issue: repealing the Depression-era ban on cross-ownership among banks, insurance companies and securities houses.
But three areas of dispute continue to jeopardize final passage. The Treasury and the Fed still disagree about what corporate structure would best guarantee that federal insurance of bank deposits isn't unwittingly extended to nonbanking activities. Then there is disagreement about the Community Redevelopment Act, which has successfully encouraged banks to lend more to poor neighborhoods. The Senate version of the bill would weaken the CRA.
The biggest controversy in the House, though, has to do with privacy. The financial institutions want to retain ownership of all the information they collect about their customers. They can profitably sell such data; they also can use it, they argue, to offer improved services. But where the financial institutions see gains for consumers, some members of Congress see risk in the sharing of information across institutional divides. A bank could let its securities affiliate know when an elderly customer's certificate of deposit was expiring, setting the customer up for exploitation with a riskier financial product. Insurance companies with knowledge of a customer's poor health could warn a mortgage affiliate not to make a loan. And so on.
The House Commerce Committee approved, with bipartisan support, a compromise solution. Financial institutions would be able to sell most information, with the exception of medical data, and share such information among affiliates. But customers would be given the right to say no -- to request that their information not be shared. This "opt-out" is less sweeping than what some self-styled consumer advocates wanted -- that is, no sharing without express approval from each customer. But most industry lobbyists oppose even this modest measure, and the House leadership may keep the Commerce Committee version from coming to the floor. That would be a mistake; the House should be allowed to vote on a provision that would give consumers a bit of increased protection as financial institutions bulk up.