Lesson From Hike the Hill: Learn to Play the Game
Winston Churchill once said that “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”
The quote rang true in a recent visit with our congressman. As part of a delegation of Virginia credit union leaders, we’d gone to the representative’s office expecting an opportunity to show him how credit unions can benefit his constituency.
The group consisted of CEO Gerald Hershey, Compliance Officer Jason Clarke and Senior Vice President of Retail and Lending Steve Elkins of DuPont Community Credit Union and CEO John Beiler of Park View Federal Credit Union.
We wanted to show him the facts–a list of excellent borrowers who we’d turned away because of regulatory limits. We wanted to tell him the truth about how credit unions were poised to help with job creation by supporting credit-hungry small businesses.
But we were too late. Others had been there before us. Our congressman had already bought the lie.
Our congressman said, “I am friends with credit unions, and I am friends with the banks. If I give you something, what do you have for me to offer the banks?”
In our short meeting, the congressman made clear that he is unwilling to support, let alone co-sponsor, any bill related to lifting the member business lending cap. To be frank, he showed no obvious interest in even hearing our point of view on the subject. In fact, his tone was at times derisive and disrespectful.
As uncomfortable as it was, the visit was also quite revealing. Reflecting on the visit, we came to some realizations that we believe will help us if we ever hope to catch up with bankers.
Many politicians view credit unions very differently than we view ourselves. We think of ourselves as stewards of the public good–consumer advocates helping the little guy. We are people on a mission to support job creation and small business. To our representative, we were merely lobbyists for the CU system–lobbyists who, in the context of the political game, seemed unprepared, uninformed and inept.
Banking lobbyists have framed the MBL debate and diverted attention to credit unions’ tax-exempt status. At this point, our congressman is less interested in listening to the plight of small business and the unemployed and more apt to pay attention to banking concerns. Regarding arbitrary MBL limits set as part of the FOM-expanding H.R. 1151, he declared that credit unions had made a bad deal that they now have to live with. Our representative appears to be convinced that community banks begin every day already behind because credit unions don’t pay federal income tax.
Credit unions don’t know how to play the game. At least in the eyes of lawmakers who cater to lobbyists, credit unions are ineffective at influencing legislation. Since banking lobbyists outnumber lawmakers five to one, this is no surprise. Our congressman explained to us that the way to play is to object to everything bankers attempt to do while offering compromises that favor credit unions.
With a new awareness of where we stand, we are now convinced that we must make ourselves heard in the MBL debate. Although no single credit union, credit union league or trade association can make this happen alone, there are several actions that each of us must take immediately.
In Virginia and elsewhere, credit unions need to get serious about making a difference in the lives of our members. Lattés in the lobby, “I love my credit union” campaigns and slightly better dividend and interest rates don’t cut it anymore.
Credit unions need to make such a difference in our member’s lives that they tell others about us. When our members experience and understand the difference between a credit union’s mission and motivations and that of banks, they will willingly contact lawmakers.
We need to get good at lobbying. To reach our lawmakers, we need to redefine grassroots lobbying. CEOs and their boards need to carve out time to visit lawmakers. We have access to hundreds of thousands of potential lobbyists–credit union members. If we are making a difference in the lives of our members, they will be willing to promote our causes.
We need to reframe the debate. Lifting the MBL cap is an important means to increase lending to small business and create jobs without cost to the taxpayer. We must find a way to communicate this. At the same time, we need to aggressively respond to the inconsistencies in the attack on our income tax-exempt status.
Rather than defending our status based on the not-for-profit message, to which few are listening, we need to expose the preferential tax treatment that community banks experience. For example, community banks do not pay state income tax in Virginia. Instead, they pay a franchise tax, which is much less than the corporate tax rate. Credit unions pay plenty of taxes in the form of personal property and real estate taxes–taxes that Virginia banks are exempt from paying.
Regardless of whether the MBL cap increase impacts your credit union, the evidence suggests that the political ramifications of winning this battle are huge. What happens next will set the tone for the future of your credit unions, our industry and how we will serve our members in the next decade.
It’s not too late to get our pants on and articulate our positions to every lawmaker in the nation. We might have been beaten to the door of our Representatives’ offices, but we have not been beaten in Washington yet. If we desire to succeed, it is time to do what it takes to catch up. We need to continue to polish our skills and get into the national media with the truth–the whole story. Don’t let the bankers take this one away. Don’t let the bankers tell us how to serve our members. We need to win this one.
Ken Gonyer is vice president of marketing and communications at Park View FCU, Harrisburg, Va.
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