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Street Talk: Accepting Political Realities at the Roundtable

Congress is not yet through with the financial services reform bill, which encountered some last-minute problems before the recess, but as far as former Rep. Steve Bartlett is concerned, this bill is done, done, done.

“We accept the reality that this is soon to be the law of the land,” said Bartlett, president and CEO of the Financial Services Roundtable. “The Senate still has to vote, but this legislation is in its final form.”

The former Texas GOP Congressman’s group didn’t get all it wanted in the bill. It objected to the details of a new consumer protection agency, for example. “We made our case and lost,” Bartlett acknowledged.

But on Thursday, Bartlett plans to deliver a speech at the National Press Club titled “A New Day.” And that’s his message, a new day, even as the Senate continues this week to wrangle to pass the bill.

As for Bartlett’s own future, he says he loves what he’s doing. Another top financial association president, the American Bankers Associations’ Edward Yingling, announced his retirement last week. And Barlett’s name has been floated as a possible contender for that post.

“My job now is to get this right,” Bartlett said, referring to implementation of the bill once it has become law.

One Republican lobbyist in the industry said that he doesn’t see a retirement in Bartlett’s future but that he wouldn’t be surprised if after the November elections — especially if Republicans make significant gains — Bartlett, 62, made a move.

“He loves this stuff, following and watching Congress,” the lobbyist said. “He’s definitely not bored.”

The lobbyist predicts that the roundtable, like other business groups, could generally be ripe for personnel changes. “I think there’s going to be a ton of movement coming, with Republicans poised to do well,” he said.

This source added that Bartlett, who wears cowboy boots and operates out of a fifth-floor office bedecked with Western-themed statues of horses, cuts an unusual figure in the industry’s lobbying lineup.

It’s difficult to untangle Bartlett from the roundtable, which he essentially created 11 years ago out of the former Bankers Roundtable.

“They’re kind of a shoot first, ask questions later type of group,” a Democratic industry lobbyist said. “Sometimes that’s great. They’ll be the first to get out there and respond to something. They’re scrappy, and I’ve always thought that comes from the top.”

That can have a downside, this lobbyist said. “They can be clumsy, like a bull in a china shop.”

The roundtable’s membership comes from a cross-section of the financial industry, and many companies are also members of other organizations, including the ABA, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association or the American Council of Life Insurers.

As a result, regulatory reform has taken up about 80 percent of Bartlett’s attention, he estimates.

“It’s just been the worst economic crisis, so it’s been the worst for me, too,” Bartlett said. “I look back and have to accept responsibility for what I failed to see, for what my companies failed to see. We didn’t identify the problems early enough and do something about them.”

But Bartlett is not complaining about the job. The pace and schedule during the debate over reform have been exhilarating too.

“It’s what we’re all called up to do,” Bartlett said. “It’s not as hard as being a 2nd lieutenant in Afghanistan.”

The roundtable has sponsored the program Hope Now, which has helped about 3.2 million homeowners renegotiate their mortgage rates to avoid foreclosure. “We don’t get any credit for it, but we did it,” Bartlett said. “OK, maybe I’m just feeling sensitive. We got some credit. … It’s so gratifying about my job that we get to see people whose lives we’ve saved.”

On the horizon, he sees tax issues that are on a collision course.

“I feel a little bit like the kid in Texas,” he said in his Lone Star State drawl — a kid seeing two trains coming toward each other on the same track.

“I’m going to get my brother!” the kid says.

“Well, what can he do?” someone asks.

“Nothing,” the kid responds, “but he’s never seen a train wreck.”

That’s part of Barlett’s motivation to turn his attention toward the November elections. Had the 2008 elections gone another way, regulatory reform would have taken on a different look, he says.

“We’ve worked hard to be bipartisan,” Bartlett said. According to federal election records, the roundtable’s political action committee has given 49 percent to Democrats and 51 percent to Republicans.

But Bartlett added, “Elections do matter.”

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