This is a prediction you can take to the credit union.
During the presidential campaign there are some phrases you won’t hear. “The government isn’t spending enough money.” “China doesn’t own enough of U.S. assets.” And, “One of my top priorities is to raise the cap on credit union member business lending and to let credit unions raise supplemental capital.”
But just because credit unions aren’t on the tip of the tongues of President Obama and his opponents doesn’t mean that credit unions can’t shape some of the discussion of economic issues.
University of Iowa Community Credit Union CEO Jeff Disterhoft said that when he lobbied President Obama to support raising the cap on member business loans during a town hall meeting last month, the leader of the free world’s “nonverbal language indicated that he wasn’t aware of the issue.”
Credit unions will never be the 800-pound gorilla among interest groups. There are many reasons for this, but the most significant factor is that they just aren’t big enough. This is an instance when size really does matter.
However, there are ways for credit unions to leverage their strength so they attain more clout than they have now.
They can start learning how to do it by going to the movies.
On Sept. 23, in theaters all over the country, “Moneyball” will open. The film, based on Michael Lewis’ critically acclaimed book, tells the story of how some small-market teams have been able to compete with the Major League Baseball’s biggest spenders.
Through the use of complicated analytical formulas and the wise husbanding of financial resources, several small-market teams have been able to do better than expected. Lewis’ book focuses on Oakland General Manager Billy Beane, who is played in the movie by Brad Pitt.
Credit unions don’t need to win the political equivalent of the World Series to make their legislative dreams come true. They just need to step up their game and build on their recent efforts to increase their political clout.
CUNA is already among the top 10 political action committees based on contributions, and it has used its money to curry favor with rank and file members and key members of the congressional leadership through both direct contributions and independent expenditures. NAFCU has increased its visibility as well, albeit on a smaller scale.
Money certainly drives much of the political conversation and influences the outcome of policy debates. However, there is another equally significant source of clout: people power.
The banks have done an effective job of reminding lawmakers of how strong they are at the grassroots. Several credit union executives and lobbyists have noted, with great frustration, that when they talk to lawmakers about pending legislation one of the responses is often, “I need to check with the community banks on this issue.”
If credit unions want to compete more effectively in the political arena, this week is an ideal time to start. As industry leaders descend on Washington, either to participate in one of CUNA’s Hike the Hill or NAFCU’s Congressional Caucus, they should use their meetings as a chance to refine their message.
The banks have successfully depicted credit unions as tax-exempt banks that are intent on stealing their business while getting a huge subsidy from Uncle Sam. Even former Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), who has been friendly toward credit union, expressed concern about the industry’s “mission creep.”
If credit unions focus on what makes them unique–member ownership, service to the underserved and better prices–and do it in a concise and engaging manner, they might have a better chance of winning more legislative victories. CUNA and NAFCU already regularly tell lawmakers how many credit unions and credit union members they have in their states and districts.
If credit unions expand their contacts so that every lawmaker can’t avoid hearing about what good things credit unions are doing for their community, they may have better luck with Congress.
As crucial discussions about member business lending and the credit union tax exemption lurk on the horizon, ramping up the industry’s political mojo has never been more important.