Senate Is Key to Fate Of Credit Union Wish List
If nothing else, Credit Union Times is all about helping readers understand their world.
In that spirit and as a public service to those wanting to learn about exotic cultures, this column will try to explain a society inhabited by strange men and women whose rituals and mores can be puzzling.
We aren't talking about the Bushmen of Kalahari Desert or an unknown Amazon tribe.
Today's subject is much closer to home: the United States Senate.
The last two major initiatives that credit unions fought for-expanding their charter and increasing the cap on member business loans-died in that chamber, and not because they lacked the support of a majority of members.
In fact, the Senate isn't about simple majorities. To pass a measure in that chamber, whose 100 members think of themselves as being part of the world's greatest deliberate body, you need 60 votes.
Now, as a credit union professional or regulator who has reasonably good math skills, you are saying to yourself "That's not the math I learned in school." You are probably also thinking that when you studied politics or social studies, the guiding principle taught about governing is that it's more often than not about majority rule.
Don't worry, even veteran politicians, especially those who serve in the U.S. House, are puzzled and annoyed by the Senate.
"The Republicans are our opposition. The Senate is our enemy," Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) said earlier this year.
For credit unions, it's not quite that bad. However, when the Senate considered a bill that created a $30 billion fund for community banks to tap into to make more business loans, Senate leaders wouldn't rock the boat by adding an amendment to raise the cap on MBLs.
Apparently, the 60 votes weren't there to stop a likely filibuster, which would have been led by the allies of community banks. That happened despite the fact that two key members of the Democratic leadership-Majority Leader Harry Reid and Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer-were strong backers of raising the MBL cap.
Lobbyists for CUNA and NAFCU, who are usually astute observers of congressional goings-on, are often at a loss to predict or explain the Senate. Even though the political action committees of both CUNA and NAFCU have contributed handily to key senators-including CUNA's independent expenditure on behalf of Reid-that doesn't guarantee anything.
The filibuster means that 41 Senators, who can represent as little as 12.3% of the population, can wreak havoc on credit unions' ability to attain items on their legislative list. If the Senate were Santa Claus, it would be giving out lots of coal.
The use of the filibuster has vastly increased in recent years. According to a study by Steven Smith, a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, even though the Democrats have controlled the chamber during the past two sessions of Congress, they have had to invoke cloture (a move requiring 60 votes) to pass every major piece of legislation.
"Daily floor action now resembles hand-to-hand combat," Smith wrote in a recent paper.
The Senate rules have always sought-unlike those of the House-to ensure that the rights of the minority party are protected. The Senate's slow process for considering legislation was, some argue, what the nation's founders intended.
In the possibly apocryphal story, George Washington is credited with explaining to Thomas Jefferson (who was in France while the Constitution was drafted) that "we pour our legislation into the Senatorial saucer to cool it."
At times, however, the Senate has become more like a freezer.
Long gone are the days when Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson could cajole, arm-twist and occasionally bully members (including Republicans at times) to go along with him. Johnson, who was more than six-feet tall, often hovered over colleagues while talking to them and wasn't afraid to poke them in the chest.
Even though Reid is a former boxer, it's difficult to imagine him literally or figuratively trying to strong-arm his colleagues.
The Senate has changed in other ways.
These days, filibusters no longer resemble the marathon talk fests famously depicted in the 1939 film classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. That means we aren't often treated to oratorical gems like the filibuster speech of Jimmy Stewart's character Jefferson Smith.
However, even if the Senate were still a venue for high-flown rhetoric, member business lending and secondary capital don't exactly lend themselves to such language.
Therefore, credit unions need to do a better job of conveying the values and mission of credit unions, and why they are better than banks.
They could take an example from another Stewart movie, It's A Wonderful Life. Stewart's character, Bailey Building and Loan Association executive George Bailey, criticizes the values of people who are only motivated by profits. His foil is businessman Mr. Potter, played devilishly by Lionel Barrymore, the majority shareholder of the building and loan.
"You sit around here and you spin your little webs and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money. Well, it doesn't, Mr. Potter. In the whole vast configuration of things, I'd say you were nothing but a scurvy little spider," Bailey says.