Eavesdropping on Becker and Cheney
The two men recently had lunch together, and while media representatives weren’t invited to join them, here is how the conversation might have gone.
Cheney: Nice to see you, Fred. It’s good that we are working together these days on the interchange issue, rather than sniping at each other like little kids in the sand box.
Becker: Not sniping, Bill, just trying to justify our existence. I mean extol the virtues of having two voices because two is better than one.
Cheney: Funny you mentioned that, Fred. I wasn’t going to bring up the merger issue right away because I know Dan Mica was like a broken record on that subject. But it is a subject that we can’t ignore, kind of like the 800-pound gorilla in the room.
Becker: Ignoring it would be fine by me. Or, as the late senator from New York Daniel Patrick Moynihan said about another subject, benign neglect.
Cheney: Fred, I see your point, but merging makes financial and strategic sense. Credit unions have fewer dollars to spend and we’d be speaking with one voice on Capitol Hill and at the NCUA.
Becker: You are right about credit unions having less money. That’s one reason I keep bugging Debbie Matz about keeping NCUA expenses down. It does about as much good as telling Charlie Sheen to lay off the drugs and booze. But I try.
Seriously, Bill, our members like the fact that we are nimble and get a fast response. It doesn’t take us forever to make a decision. CUNA’s procedures would have been right at home in the old Soviet Union. Your leagues are fine, but they aren’t efficient.
Cheney: It’s easy to be efficient when you are small and only answer to relatively few credit unions. If you think about it though, we’d be bigger but more streamlined. Do we really need two lobbying shops, two compliance staffs and two regulatory teams?
Becker: Actually, yes. My team is better than yours. Especially in some areas, like compliance.
For all of the size you have and all the money you give to campaigns, you can’t seem to translate that into clout. Member business lending? Interchange? Both seem stalled. You guys did a mailing for [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid, and he won’t help.
Cheney: Fred, it’s not a quid pro quo. We don’t expect a direct result; it’s about building goodwill. And don’t worry, I am sure we’d absorb some of your staff onto ours. Though I wonder how [NAFCU Executive Vice President] Dan Berger would feel about working for [CUNA Senior Vice President] John Magill or [CUNA Vice President] Ryan Donovan?
Becker: But what’s goodwill if you can’t get results? I mean Mica did a lot to build up your organization and increase its lobbying clout. But to be honest, after H.R. 1151 the progress has been slow. In addition, you guys had to lay people off and do major cutbacks during the recession. We ran a leaner operation and avoided most of that.
Cheney: It’s been a challenging environment. Because as we’ve gotten stronger so have the banks. We are in the same league as they are in terms of campaign giving, but they have done a better job at ingratiating themselves at the grassroots level. That’s where you could help too. Most members of Congress don’t know the difference between a federal and nonfederal credit union. When my folks are asked they don’t have a great explanation for why our relatively small industry needs two groups.
Becker: The problem is you have all these state-chartered institutions in your midst. And the examination process for them is, shall we say, a bit inconsistent. And that’s to say nothing about private insurance. My members like the NCUA as their insurer, despite its flaws.
Cheney: I understand that, Fred, but to quote that sage philosopher Mick Jagger, “You can’t always get what you want.” And sometimes you have to think of the greater good of the industry rather than your individual needs. Our industry is getting smaller and one large organization is better than two redundant ones. Think about it, Fred. I am not going to push but it might be something to consider.
Becker: I’ll talk about it with my board, but I wouldn’t count on it. Frankly, there’s a better chance that I’ll root for Army in the next Army-Navy game.