WASHINGTON -- In previous years much of the credit union political news that has come out of CUNA's Governmental Affairs Conference has come from lawmakers' remarks made on stage at the conference. But this year, with a hearing before the House Financial Services Committee scheduled for the last day of the conference and a new credit union reform measure introduced, attention moved away from the GAC stage to Capitol Hill.
The biggest two political and legislative moves came when CUNA and the sponsors of the Credit Union Regulatory Improvements Act (H.R. 153) announced that they had introduced a new bill similar to CURIA but stood a better chance of passage.
The new bill, the Credit Union Regulatory Relief Act (H.R. 5519), was introduced by CURIA champions Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa.), Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Barney Frank (D-Mass.). It includes many of the regulatory relief items of CURIA but not all of the enhancements, such as risk-based capital and more expansive business lending provisions. It does include a tweaked version of the provision to allow all federal credit unions to adopt underserved areas and would allow for payday loans to all potential members, according to one credit union lobbyist.
Dan Mica explained from the podium about the measure and urged members to support it, but it took Kanjorski to really help credit unions understand the political calculations behind the rationale. He noted that all of the measures in the new bill had either already passed the House or had built a large measure of support and that was the primary reason they had been included in the bill.
Kanjorski also reminded the audience of the battle 10 years ago over H.R.1151 and how opponents had considered credit unions dead and gone until CUs mustered their members to come to Washington to support the measure. "In a very short time we had thousands of people rallying on the mall and when that happened the sponsors and co-sponsors came running from all directions and out of the woodwork," he recalled. He knew the bill had a very strong chance when he met Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in the hall one day and the then-speaker of the House told him he had co-sponsored the bill.
"I was a little bit skeptical because I knew we had worked on Gingrich for weeks," Kanjorski said, "but he reassured me. I am number 406, he said."
Kanjorski used the anecdote to illustrate his belief that most legislators were only waiting for someone in their district to ask them to co-sponsor it. "I know there are a minority who will have very real reasons from their situations where they will vote for the bill but not co-sponsor it, but I think most members will want to," he said.
He pointed out that the bill is bipartisan, thanks to the efforts of Representative Royce and other Republicans. Royce and he, Kanjorski said, have very different political philosophies, "but on credit union issues we have a common bond."
The other big political step to come from Capitol Hill was news that Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.) would sponsor CURIA in the Senate and that Independent Joe Lieberman (Conn.) would co-sponsor it.
Landrieu received a standing ovation from the attendees when she announced that she would introduce the bill and prefaced her announcement with reminding the attendees of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the reaction of credit unions around the country to helping residents of the impacted areas to recover from the storms.
"Working together, Senator Lieberman and I will shepherd this bill through he process," she said to loud and persistent applause.
The combination of Landrieu's sponsorship of CURIA and the announcement of the new bill confused some attendees, who wondered if Landrieu would also be sponsoring the new bill, CURRA. But Pat Keefe, spokesman for CUNA clarified that Landrieu was backing the full CURIA bill in the Senate.
Kanjorski expressed a fair degree of optimism about the legislative prospects for both bills, although less for CURIA, which he said faced a tight timeline in an election year. He also expressed a belief that credit unions would be coming into a challenging year.
But as the dark economic clouds are gathering, Kanjorski urged credit unions to remain beacons of hope.
"We are going to go through some rough times this year," Kanjorski said. "We are going to see downturns over the next three, six or nine months, and I think beyond 2008. A lot of people will be losing their homes and their jobs and getting depressed. All of you are leaders in your community and your community will not need doom and gloom, they will need hope.
"This will be more necessary than in other year. Families are going to be affected and afraid, they are going to lose their homes. This is the year you will need to reach out and say that's why we are here, that's why we are non-profit financial institutions which exist to serve our members."
Kanjorski in particular asked CUs to broadly help senior citizens to file tax returns so that they would be eligible for the economic stimulus checks that the government will send out later this year.
"Many of these people haven't filled out tax returns in years and will not be thrilled to hear they will have to do that now," he said. "But that is the only way they will be able to participate in the economic stimulus that we will need to help get this economy back on track."
If CUs help their members through these difficult time, Kanjorski opined, they will be able to count on the support of Congress far into the future.