With its sponsor happily voicing acknowledgments to Bert Lance, the House Banking Committee gave final approval yesterday to the most far-reaching bank "reform" legislation in more than a decade.
The committee agreed unanimously to send the bill to the floor after adding some sharply contested provisions that would restrict the government's unfettered access to individual bank records.
Rep. Fernand J. St Germain (D-R.I.) hailed the bill as "a major victory" for the banking public and said it would, if properly carried out, bring an end to a wide array of banking abuses, including the free-wheeling practices that made headlines last year in the Lance case.
Lance resigned last September as President Carter's budget director as the result of revelations concerning his financial dealings.
"We have provided the regulatory machinery to assure that commercial banks are not operated as playpens for insiders, and that they meet the obligations of their charters to provide services to the public," St. Germain, the bill's principal author, said in a statement.
The wide-ranging measure, which includes 20 separate titles covering more than 180 pages, would prohibit overdrafts by bank insiders, broaden the power of government regulators to issue cease-and-desist orders, and impose uniform limits on loans by a bank to insiders, their businesses and political campaigns.
The committee's final session on the bill was enlivened yesterday morning by loud debate over financial privary provisions jointly sponsored by Reps. John J. Cavanaugh (D-Neb.) and John J. LaFalce (D-N.Y.).
The Justice Department was adamantly opposed to a tougher version Cavanaugh had sponsored and it vainly sought to head off several last-minute amendments offered yesterday.
"We have very, very serious objections to two of the amendments," Deputy Assistant Attorney General Raymond S. Calamaro told a reporter during a break.He indicated they could cause havoc for government investigators. The administration, Calamaro said, may be forced to ask the House Judiciary Committee to come to its rescue by asserting concurrent jurisdiction.
Under a 1976 Supreme Court ruling, individuals currently have no right to contest government subpoenas of their bank records. In a 7-to-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the records belong to the bank, and customers have "no legitimate expectation of privacy" to the information they contain.
Rejecting that notion yesterday, the committee voted 39 to 3 to assure that an individual be told every time a federal agency gains access to his or her financial records. In most cases, the individual would get prior notice and could go to court to block the inspection.
Overriding Justice Department protests, the committee also voted to prevent government agencies from exchanging financial data without giving the person involved a chance to challenge the transfer.
"What we're talking about here is the witchhunt," Rep. Stewart B. McKinney (R-Conn.) protested. Under present law, he complained, the Internal Revenue Service could send financial date to the FBI, which could send it to the Securities and Exchange Commission and all over Washington in a search for transgressions far beyond the jurisdiction of the agency that got the records in the first place.
Rep. Frank Annunzio (DnIll.) suggested that a vote for McKinney's amendment amounted to "being soft on crime," but McKinney denied it.
"What we've been soft on is the executive branch's running through the rights of Amiercan citizens," he shot back.
Senior Democrats on the committee such as St Germain and William S. Moorhead (Pa.) agreed. "Once a transfer has taken place, there's no way to undo it," Moorhead said. "Copies can be made. The damage has been done."
The committee voted 32 to 9 to adopt McKinney's amendment, then approved a limitation offered by Rep. John H. Rousselot (R-Calif.), who estimated that 160 federal agencies could otherwise avoid the prior-notice rule. He moved to exempt only the SEC, and only because "they've lobbied this committee so damn hard."
The cosponsors of the privacy compromise, La Falce and Cavanah, had a falling out when LaFalce won an exemption for subpoenas issued by federal grand juries.
The Justice Department said application of the privacy restrictions to grand jury investigations would have a highly "adverse effect on law enforcement."
The committee went along with the argument, but promptly added language proposed by Rep. James A. Mattox (D-Tex.) to require that any financial records obtained by grand jury subpoena actually be presented to a grand jury instead of left sitting around in a prosecutor's office indefinitely.
The Justice Department's Calamaro said the administration also would seek reversal of the Mattox proviso.
With the privacy provisions settled for the moment, however, the committee moved along hurriedly to report out the bill, 43 to 0. It was introduced last September by St. Germain as the Safe Banking Act, but the banking lobby took offense at the implication that normal banking practices were unsafe, no matter what Bert Lance said.
Now blandly titled the Financial Institutions Regulatory Act of 1978, it still represents "the biggest across-the-board upgrading of federal regulatory power" since 1966, a committee aide said. The Senate has passed a more modest regulartory package, and backers of the House bill envision a Senate-House conference and then final passage before adjournment.