Savings and loan firms had enormous success in getting whatever they wanted out of Congress and the White House in the 1980s -- success so great, in fact, that it ruined the industry.

Now the government agency charged with cleaning up the S&L mess has turned for help to one of the industry's legislative architects, Randall H. McFarlane, formerly senior vice president and Washington counsel of the U.S. League of Savings Institutions.

The Resolution Trust Corp., created last year to dismantle failed thrifts, has hired McFarlane to direct its office of legislative affairs. In announcing the appointment, agency Executive Director David C. Cooke cited McFarlane's "familiarity with the issues."

McFarlane was with the league for most of the 1980s, in charge of drafting and analyzing legislation. The league, which has suffered a credibility crisis in the wake of the S&L scandal, was the principal group lobbying for eased regulations that transformed once-stodgy S&Ls into high-flying real estate speculators.

"The whole country is in an uproar, and the league's come in for its share of the blame, there's no question about it," McFarlane said. But he was not looking for irony, he said, when he decided to take a job cleaning up the mess many believe the league helped create. He just needed a change.

"Somebody said people need to be repotted once in a while," he said. "The RTC job seemed like it was going to be fascinating."

Before joining the league in 1983, McFarlane spent 10 years with the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, first in enforcement and later as an attorney responsible for legislation.

One of the big events of his career, in fact, was his role in drafting the Garn-St Germain Act for the bank board in 1982, legislation that is now widely viewed as an accelerant to underlying thrift industry problems. The act allowed thrifts, whose traditional base was home mortgage loans, to get into the more-lucrative but risky area of commercial lending.

McFarlane said he believes most of the thrifts that failed had not taken advantage of the full commercial lending provisions allowed under Garn-St Germain.

"A lot of people used to claim credit for Garn-St Germain. They don't seem to do that anymore," he said. "It's been scapegoated."

In the past, McFarlane was viewed as a technical expert with a long institutional memory rather than a glad-handing lobbyist.

"I don't think his job was to sell the {league's} policy," said Stephen Verdier, a lobbyist for the Independent Bankers Association, another trade group. "He was a worker in the vineyard, not a top policy-maker."

"It's perfectly understandable that the RTC would want to take advantage of that expertise. He's an honorable guy," Verdier said.

His new job will be to lobby members of Congress and their staffs on behalf of the RTC. His employment with the league may have steeled him for the inevitable congressional criticism of an agency that is expected to spend as much as $500 billion during the decade.

"I expect there to be an intense interest," he said. "The RTC is part of the Washington landscape, and it's going to be spending quite a bit of taxpayer money."