The Holding Companies' Man on the Hill; Donald Rogers, President of Association of BHCs for 25 Years, Is Known for Political Savvy - but Even He Couldn't Unify Banks

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WASHINGTON -- Bank holding companies. The very words evoke an image of powerful corporations on the cutting edge of industry change.

In fact, much of the banking legislation currently under consideration on Capitol Hill deals with what bank holding companies should or should not be allowed to do. And right in the middle of the legislative process is Donald L. Rogers, president of the Association of bank Holding Companies.

Interviewed in the association's offices near the Treasury Department, one block from the White House, Mr. Rogers reflected on his 30 years in Washington and expressed his views on some aspects of banking's relations with Congress this year and next, when lawmakers are expected consider issues of vital importance to the industry.

Mr. Rogers, 56, is a tall, soft-spoken man whose down-home manner belies his reputation as one of Washington's shrewdest political analysts. He came to the nation's capital in 1953 fresh out of law school and went to work for the Senate Banking Committee.

He rose to the position of committee counsel and worked on the Bank Holding Company Act of 1956 -- a project that introduced him to many bankers. Two years later, he was invited to head a new trade group for bank holding companies. Same Chief, Different Group

Mr. Rogers is still holding the job, although the association has changed. Starting with 13 bank holding companies with about $13 billion in assets, the group now has 180 member holding companies with $1.3 trillion in assets. That's about 75% of U.S. banking assets.

The association's opinion is highly regarded on Capitol Hill because of its membership and its president's political savvy. But even Mr. Rogers could not help forge a united banking stance in 1982, a division that he says still haunts the industry.

"The banking community's two years behind where it should be. Banking should have gotten new powers as part of the Garn-St Germain Act of 1982."

At that time, Mr. Rogers observed, "The thrift industry was in serious trouble. Congress had to do something to bail it out, and that was the opportunity for banks to say, 'Fine, let's help the thrifts, but let's give something to banking.'"

But "the banking community dropped the ball," he said. The industry didn't make its points "partly because banking was not united. We didn't stand firm enough and missed an opportunity.

"And here we are, two years later, still making the same arguments about underwriting revenue bonds, being in insurance, being in the mutual funds business, and being in real estate." Meantime, Mr. Rogers added, "our competitors have made great strides."

Mr. Rogers believes that in January 1983, banking should have started making congressional leaders live up to their promises of early action on measures to expand the scope and powers of banks. Instead, "the fact that the banking industry got involved in this tremendous battle over withholding meant there was no time left to take up new powers and services for banks."

Although the 1984 session may be shortened by elections, Mr. Rogers believes it is nevertheless crucial for banking to pull out all the stops in an effort to obtain the additional powers that banks need to compete in the marketplace this year.

Banking "must make an all-out effort to try to catch up. We can't afford to delay any longer.

"But it's going to be difficult," he added, because "we don't have that vehicle, and members of Congress don't perceive any crisis of emergency that makes them feel they have to act. In banking legislation, it has usually taken that kind of atmosphere to get anything done."

Regardless of what happens in 1984, Mr. Rogers believes "1985 is going to be the year when interstate banking will be the big issue in Congress. The fact that states are moving on their own will finally make Congress face up to the issue. …