ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- NCUA Director of Public and Congressional Affairs John McKechnie is familiar enough with the issues to do his job, but has re-learned how to look at and present them.
"It is different enough to be interesting and it's similar enough to understand," he said of his first year at NCUA after leaving as CUNA's top lobbyist. "At the same time I think the mere fact that of working for a federal agency where you go before Congress and are asked to give objective analysis, rather than my days at a trade association as a credit union advocate, that's a difference."
But, rather than lobbying for a particular membership, McKechnie's job now is to "persuade" and help the agency serve as a resource to Congress. "I think I can still persuade, I'm just not coming at it from an advocate's perspective. I'm coming at it more from where the public policy value is in a particular issue," he explained.
Also similar to his previous employer, McKechnie looks at how regulation fits into the relevant statutes at NCUA. "But," he differentiated, "you're in the position at an advocacy group of trying to represent your members' interests before Congress, which is a very healthy process. This is also a very healthy process. I think any financial institutions regulator, whether they be for credit unions or banks, has got to look at the Hill as a partner." McKechnie added that it is crucial for NCUA to help Congress understand the agency's role.
You cannot take Capitol Hill out of the lobbyist and McKechnie is there every chance he gets. He said he feels strong support from the NCUA Board to spend a lot of time on the Hill, "so I've been able to go up to the Hill and cultivate a relationship and just talk to people." Congressman Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) and his staff are one example, but he likes to emphasize to members of Congress that NCUA is there to be helpful, whether as a legislative resource or regarding a constituent complaint.
McKechnie has had a couple major issues to contend with during his short tenure at the agency. He came in at a time when NCUA had to improve its image over the issue of credit union conversions to mutual savings banks. The perception on the Hill was that the agency was trying to be obstructionist, McKechnie explained. "One of the things I tried hardest to do in my first few months here was...remind Congress that there's a significant consumer protection angle to the conversion issue and that is that the members own the institution," he said. "The members ought to make the decision about whether or not a credit union should be a credit union."
The entire issue for NCUA comes down to proper member disclosure in the conversion process, which McKechnie said, came through at the Financial Services hearing last May. "I think it's resulted in the agency being a lot more favorably viewed on the Hill on that issue now," he observed.
Additionally, NCUA had been charged with measuring federal credit union service to those of modest means, which resulted in the Member Service Assessment Pilot program report being delivered to Congress. "That story was an important story to tell Congress," he recalled. "Credit unions are constrained by field of membership but within that constraint credit unions are doing a good job of serving people of all income strata." At that time, even credit union advocates on the Hill wanted some answers.
McKechnie concluded, "This agency has a very solid history. It's a very well run agency. The safety and soundness record of this agency is exemplary and I think our agency has a particularly good story to tell. When you have a good story to tell, you tend to want to tell it."
McKechnie commented, "I really do feel appreciated by the board here. That's meant a lot to me and to my career. It makes coming to work here every day a real pleasure." He also said he knows he is able to rely on NCUA's professional staff for support. "The atmosphere of collegiality here is impressive."
Another commonality between his posts at NCUA and CUNA is that "your credibility is key to your success," he said. "If you don't have a credible profile with people on the Hill, people don't trust your information and your judgment, you're in trouble."
Likewise, McKechnie said dealing with the press, which he did some of at CUNA and had done in his previous work on the Hill, has similar demands. "I think a lot of the basic tenants of working with the media, apply to working with Congress as well--be honest and credible and forthright," he said, adding that he sees the large learning curve there is to improve in the mainstream media concerning credit unions.
Tying public and congressional affairs together, McKechnie has begun notifying members of Congress immediately when the agency gives a technical assistance grant to a low-income credit union in his or her district. "In a lot of cases, they are able to work with constituents and talk about it...Everybody feels much better about the program and I think it's a tangible thing that Congress can see--yes, NCUA is helping fulfill this mission of credit unions by reaching to people on the lower rungs of the economic ladder," he said. The local media recently picked up on Congressman Nick Rahall (D-W.V.) acknowledging a CDRLF grant.
McKechnie grew up in Baltimore, which likely helped spur his interest in politics being so close to Washington, D.C. (The sports fan was particularly pained to see the Colts win the Super Bowl after leaving Baltimore the way the team did so many years ago.)
However, McKechnie said his primary influence in politics and for entering into the political arena is late President Ronald Reagan. "Not a day goes by that I don't think about something he did." --firstname.lastname@example.org