WASHINGTON — His predecessor had to lay people off and fight congressional efforts to dramatically increase the regulatory burden on credit unions.
By contrast, during Bill Cheney’s first year as CUNA president, the trade group was in a position to pay bonuses to its employees and credit unions weren’t in the line of fire as much on Capitol Hill.
Not a bad way to spend a first year running the largest credit union trade association.
"There have been many more highlights than frustrations," Cheney said in a recent interview in a conference room at CUNA’s office here. "The congressional leadership with whom I’ve met has been receptive to the issues I have raised. We’ve laid the groundwork that will pay off on member business lending and GSE reform."
Cheney, who came to CUNA after running the California-Nevada Credit Union League, made his comments in between sips of Dr. Pepper, which is bottled about a mile from his childhood home in Dallas.
However, on the big lobbying fight of the past year, an effort to delay the implementation of the Federal Reserve’s interchange rule, the credit unions and their bank allies came up short. On June 8, an amendment sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) received 54 votes, six short of the 60 needed to pass under Senate rules. There were 45 senators who opposed it.
Though CUNA worked with the banks on that issue, it has also lost many fights to the banks. Those difficulties are prompting Cheney to make improving the association’s grassroots efforts a top priority.
"Working with and through the leagues, I want to develop our 535-seat strategy. We want to have a well-defined plan on how we are going to work with each member. We want every member of Congress to have at least one contact person within the credit union community and have he or she know what the role credit unions play in their community. We also want to do a scorecard," he said. "We are working on that and will have more details to announce later this year."
He added that it is an ongoing question, why community banks have defeated credit unions on member business lending and other issues. He insisted that the grassroots operations of the banks aren’t better than those of credit unions.
However, he pointed out that while credit unions grew up in many communities and were "the original social network," many lawmakers perceive that community banks play a more prominent role in the political atmosphere of the community.
Though Cheney said his previous job prepared him for some of the legislative and regulatory issues he now faces, he said the amount of time he has spent at the Treasury Department on the implementation of the financial overhaul bill has surprised him. When asked how receptive the Obama administration has been, he said that officials have been willing to listen to CUNA’s input even if they don’t always make decisions that are favorable to credit unions.
The Treasury Department is also setting up the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is scheduled to begin operating on July 21. While CUNA and other credit union groups have been fearful that the bureau will increase the regulatory burden, Cheney said he has a "good working relationship," with Elizabeth Warren, who is leading the bureau’s set up.
"Elizabeth Warren has said ‘if any of our regulations result in a net increase in expenses for credit unions then we will have failed miserably,’ and we wish that were above the door of every regulator, including the NCUA," Cheney said. "When she spoke at GAC, she spoke of the bureau regulating us but also about their being a partnership between credit unions and the agency, and that was nice to hear. Other regulators, like the NCUA, don’t see the relationship in the same way."
He said the regulations on credit unions have become so burdensome that "if we keep adding regulation upon regulation, we are on an unsustainable path." But he insisted that CUNA wants regulations modernized and streamlined not made more lax.
He praised the NCUA for keeping an open door on key issues and for responding to industry recommendations and coming out with a proposal to allow credit unions to prepay their assessments for rescuing the corporate credit unions.
On another hot-button issue, Cheney said CUNA has "raised the alarm level a notch," about the threat to credit unions’ tax-exempt status, in light of the desire of the Obama administration and some in Congress to find new sources of revenue.
He said if credit unions lose that status, it would fundamentally alter the credit union system for the worse and predicted many credit unions might not think the cooperative model is in their best interest.
In addition to the role of CUNA’s public face, Cheney also has to run a trade association that employs 240 people and has a budget of $51 million. He hasn’t made any major personnel changes but will have an opportunity to do so when Richard McBride, CUNA’s chief operating officer, retires at the end of the year.
Cheney said having his predecessor Dan Mica around the office during the first six months of his tenure gave him a valuable institutional memory and helped make the transition seamless. Mica’s consulting firm is doing lobbying on behalf of CUNA.
Several employees, who requested anonymity, said Cheney is well aware of what goes on within the organization but isn’t a micromanager.