CUNA Lobbyist Shuns Arm Twisting and Strives to Be an Honest Broker
WASHINGTON -- Every Sunday morning, Ryan Donovan sings tenor in his church choir where he blends his voice in with others. During the week, however, he tries to make his voice stand out and bring attention to the cause of credit unions.
As CUNA's vice president of legislative affairs, the No. 2 spot in their lobbying operation, since last September, Donovan is a point person on Capitol Hill for the organization's advocacy on issues such as regulatory relief and housing. There are seven registered lobbyists in Donovan's department and a total of 14 throughout the association.
Although CUNA has a lot of friends on both sides of the aisle and large grassroots support, Donovan said the outcome of many legislative fights is dictated by factors over which he has little control.
"We can do everything right from an advocacy perspective, but there are still so many unknowns. Our job is to minimize the unknowns.''
It's a strategy that has paid off. Recently, Donovan led CUNA's efforts on behalf of a measure that gave credit unions regulatory relief and broke a logjam with the banking lobby that threatened to kill the deal. Previously, the banking lobby had derailed a measure to provide regulatory relief to credit unions just hours before it was supposed to be voted on.
But Donovan said he is careful not to draw too much attention to credit unions. "The bright light of Congress burns the people on whom it is shined as much as it helps," he said.
During difficult economic times, he noted that there is a tendency for Congress to overreact, he added.
While CUNA's lobbying staff is well regarded on Capitol Hill, so are their counterparts in other parts of the financial services industry. That's why Donovan goes into every legislative undertaking with the same level of preparation as his beloved St. Louis Cardinals do before a game.
To attain regulatory relief and ensure that credit unions don't get punished for the sins of the bad actors during the subprime loan crisis, Donovan talks regularly with members and staffers. Although he makes his case firmly, he works especially hard to be an honest broker so lawmakers make informed decisions.
"My role is largely as a resource," said the 33-year-old Missouri native.
Long gone are the days when lobbyists did a large chunk of their work over alcohol- and steak-filled lunches in restaurants filled with cigar smoke.
For starters, smoking is banned in Washington restaurants. Also, Congress' ethics laws prohibit people lobbying Congress from paying for anything more elaborate than an hors d'oeuvre or two.
Also, though CUNA is backed up by a vast network of credit unions in every congressional district and its political action committee is one of the top givers, Donovan uses that clout subtly. He has an amiable demeanor and rarely raises his voice, preferring to let facts (or local credit union officials whom he often accompanies during visits on Capitol Hill) to speak for themselves, he said.
That approach is not surprising given that he learned legislative politics from former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, (D-Mo.), a tactician of whom it was often said was too nice to be in politics. Though Gephardt fell short of his goals of becoming president or House Speaker, he was able to get through a lot of significant legislation on taxes and health care.
Donovan hooked up with Gephardt as a summer intern while attending Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., after a planned summer trip to Africa was cancelled because of violence in region. Donovan later went on to earn a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University.
After graduating from Truman State, he joined Gephardt's office as a staff assistant, the most junior position, and worked himself up to being a legislative assistant.
While working for Gephardt, he joined the Wright Patman Congressional Federal Credit Union and shortly thereafter became a fan.
"On my first day, after I filled out all my new employee forms the office manager said, 'The next thing you need to do is open an account at the credit union,'" he recalled.
But it wasn't until he left Gephardt's office to work for Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), a member of the Financial Services Committee and strong backer of credit unions, that Donovan first saw the power of credit unions.
"I saw how well organized they were, and how capable they were in turn on the grass roots quickly," he said.
When he left Capitol Hill, he became the director of federal governmental affairs for the California and Nevada Credit Union League. He was responsible for maintaining good relations with both states' delegations, which included powerful members such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Those contacts came in handy last fall when CUNA, like other trade associations, worked to improve their relations with the Democrats who had recently recaptured the majorities in the House and Senate.
Donovan is philosophical about the demonization of lobbyists, that both presidential candidates, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, have made a focal point of their campaigns. When he left government employment, he vowed to only lobby for causes he believed in and he thinks that those in his profession who do their jobs well are serving a good cause.
"I take pride in the fact that my right to do my job is protected in the same part of the Constitution as your right to do yours can be found," Donovan said.