Political Animals

But not all of what transpires works in favor of bankingu00e2u20ac”usually the opposite, in fact. Not to worry, the banking lobbyists are on the job.Inside the beehive that is our nation`s capital, the banking lobbyists are at it day in and day outu00e2u20ac”doggedly meeting, greeting, extrapolating, exaggerating, and percolating their agendas. Some are ostentatious and outspoken, others work meticulously and quietly behind the scenes. Either way, their mission is clear: to promote legislation that is favorable to their banking clients and to stave off that which is not. To the casual observer lobbyists may appear to lead the good life. Black-tie invitations, power lunches, free-flowing money, and perennial entru00c3u00a9e to some of the most influential offices in the nation. For some, that`s reality. Othersu00e2u20ac”the real worker beesu00e2u20ac”slog it out behind the scenes with congressional assistants and committee members on a daily basis, looking to replace a significant word or two on page 47 of a bill that no one outside the Capitol has ever heard of. Take the Millennium Digital Commerce Act, for instance, which gives electronic signatures the same legal weight as those written in ink. The bill, which passed the House of Representatives 426 to 4 and the Senate unanimously, promises to save banks significant postage and printing costs, and ease their adoption of electronic commerce. President Clinton signed it into law last June. Sounds good so far. But the original bill, as championed by high-tech companies like Microsoft and Cisco Systems, did not authorize electronic versions of many records and notices that banks are required to mail to consumers. Such documents as credit-card interest disclosures, privacy statements, and notices required to be given to new enrollees in 401(k) plans were noticeably absent from the plan. This omission was particularly glaring in light of the strict consumer disclosures already required of financial institutions of all shapes and sizes. “We thought it was important that records, not just signatures, have legal authenticity in their electronic form,” says Annette Wood, an independent contract lobbyist whose sole client is Rocky Mount, North Carolina-based Centura Banks. If lobbyists for the banking industry hadn`t noticed what was missing, the bill would have allowed banks to accept digital signatures for such matters as opening an account but still would have required them to mail various printed notices to customersu00e2u20ac”negating much of the cost savings achieved by e-signatures. So the lobbyists swung into action, taking their message to members of Congress before the vote. Explains Mark Leggett, director of Federal Government Relations at Bank of America, “The technology industry was content just to legalize the digital signatures, but the banking industry felt that we had to legalize [electronic] records. It was a matter of taking a provision and explaining it to folks on the committee.” Fortunately, this position was relatively uncontroversial. The resulting legislation does indeed cover electronic records, allowing banks to compete with other industries in the e-commerce arena. Some experts say that if electronic records hadn`t been included in the MDCA, banks would have fallen two years behind other industriesu00e2u20ac”an eternity in Internet time. “What`s the cost to our institutions to fall two years behind in electronic commerce?” poses one Washington-based attorney. “My guess is nobody could quantify that, but any CEO would say, `Wow, we just dodged a big bullet.`” 25 steps to effective lobbyingThat, in a nutshell, is the job of a professional lobbyist: monitoring proposed legislation for possible effects on the banking industry and mobilizing to help their clients dodge legislative bullets. The job combines equal parts of sales talk, education, and relationship building. A good banking lobbyist has experience in public policy, knows the ins and outs of the industry, and can spot troubling language hidden in the dry legalese of a proposed bill. “We joke here that I`m an adjunct member of the legal department,” says Greer Amburn, manager of public policy at Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based Wachovia Corp. “The lobbying job, while it involves a lot of legal research, is in many cases more a sales job than a legal job. It`s basically a negotiating process,” says Graham Champion, senior vice president and manager of government affairs at AmSouth Bancorp based in Birmingham, Alabama. For example, he says, a bill amendment introduced in the House Banking Committee by Representative John LaFalce (D-NY) would have banned automatic teller machines in “gaming establishments”u00e2u20ac”including anywhere that sold lottery tickets. Says Champion, “We certainly are not trying to enhance the extension of credit for gambling, but a convenience store with an ATM that might sell a lottery ticket is not what you would typically consider to be a gambling establishment.” But don`t think that lobbying is strictly an old boys network just because it involves a bit of a sales pitch. Says Steve Bartlett, president of the Financial Services Roundtable, “Lobbying in the year 2000 is not a function of who you know, or going to dinner with people, or slapping somebody on the back, or any of those things. It`s developing information and facts and policy, and delivering that to the lawmakers.” That delivery must be tailored to the frenetic schedule of lawmakers and often takes place as they hastily hoof it from one appointment to the other. Champion recalls a strategy he called “The 25 Steps to Effective Lobbying,” which he attributes to Logan Gray, his counterpart at Birmingham neighbor SouthTrust Corp. “As you`re walking with a member of Congress, if you can`t explain your position in 25 steps, then you`ve lost him,” he says. “These people are so busy they don`t have the time to get down to tiny detailsu00e2u20ac”that`s what staff is for.” Even with a full-time staff, legislators have their hands full. That`s where the education aspect of lobbying comes in. Many lobbyists pride themselves on providing crucial knowledge and background on complicated issues to lawmakers, as well as to their clients. Says Woods, the contract lobbyist at Centura, “Part of my job is helping members of Congress who are faced with thousands of bills and not enough staff to sort through them all. I help explain the impact of the legislation they`re going to be voting on.” Amburn agrees: “Especially now, with financial institutions becoming more intricate and complex, it`s very difficult for a member of Congress to be able to know how every amendment to every bill could affect the very complex nature of financial institutions.” A drop in the bucketThat complexity, no doubt, is part of what makes lobbying such a big business. The Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) compiles data from lobbying disclosure reports filed with the House and Senate each year, and in 1998 (the most recent year for which complete figures are available), there were more than 20,000 lobbyists registered with the Senate Office of Public Records. That year, more than $1.4 billion was spent on lobbyingu00e2u20ac”that`s more than 38 registered lobbyists and $2.7 million in lobbying expenditures for every member of Congress.

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