Bank regulators, administration officials and members of Congress are struggling behind the scenes to rescue the financial system from collapse. They have bumped up against the fiery, bristle-browed figure of House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), his gavel raised against them.
Just one month after Wright took custody of the speaker's chair, he summoned three high-level officials from the Federal Home Loan Bank Board into his office. He was enraged over a proposal that would recapitalize the insolvent Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp.
Bank regulators had been trying for months to shore up the bankrupt government-insurance fund. Without it, savings and loan companies could face a Depression-style panic.
Wright lobbied fiercely to strip the recapitalization bill of any authority that would permit regulators to shut down failing banks. He demanded that the regulators specifically ease up on the 40 failing thrifts in his home state. Wright was particularly concerned about the Dallas-based Vernon Savings and Loan Association.
Our associate Michael Binstein and Texas-based reporter William M. Adler have learned what went on during Wright's closed-door meeting with the regulators. One bank board official dared to contradict Wright. The speaker exploded and unleashed a string of colorful expletives, one participant said.
Congress passed a castrated recapitalization bill to the speaker's liking.
For a bred-in-the-bone populist, Wright has an ingrained nonchalance about deficits. Yet necessity has rubbed his nose in the realities of deficit spending and the arithmetic of the federal budget. He has made some accommodations, therefore, to produce a compromise budget.
Still, Jim Wright has supped too long at the table of the monied interests. He is attentive to the plaints of banking moguls and the discomforts of oil producers.
A few years ago, Wright cornered the president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, in a private cloakroom and handed him a letter. It asked Sadat to intervene in a deal involving a Fort Worth oilman who wanted to develop an oil field in the Sinai.
Just a month earlier, the oilman had included Wright in a private gas well venture in eastern Texas.
The speaker has bought scores of oil and gas wells, real estate, stocks and nursing homes -- which he belatedly placed in a blind trust. Wright snorts that reporters can look "until they are blind and never find anything dishonest or improper."
The worst he has done, he said, is serve his constituents. It is true that oil and banking privileges have been engineered and safeguarded by a long line of Texans, Oklahomans and Louisianans, whom Democratic Congresses have elevated to leadership in the House and Senate.
But as speaker, Wright is pursuing a constituency wider than Texas. He is a shrewd politician and a forceful leader. His name has been mentioned as a candidate who would easily outclass the present crop of Democratic presidential contenders.