CUNA President Bill Cheney took time last week to answer questions in advance of this week’s Governmental Affairs Conference in Washington. Below are edited excerpts of the Q&A session.
Credit Union Times: The credit union industry has had a rough time the last few years, but it hasn’t all been bad. What do you think have been some of the highlights?
Bill Cheney: In my view, credit unions are on the rise. We recently added more members in one year than we have added in any of the previous five years. Further, despite the worst recession in the last 80 years, credit unions came through strong financially.
As NCUA tells us, at the end of 2011, credit union net worth reached 10.2% (nearly $100 billion). So, overall, credit unions came out of all the last few years stronger than ever. And there are two other developments that reinforce that.
Credit unions have certainly improved their standing among consumers. CUNA research shows that, for the first time, voters view credit unions and banks evenly in terms of the “best place for consumers to keep their day-to-day savings and checking account.” For both credit unions and banks, 43% said it was the “best place” for them.
We’ve also established ourselves as a voice on Capitol Hill when it comes to financial legislation. Late last year, when the House was holding a hearing on legislation to give bankers regulatory relief, we asked for and received a green light to voice our own views of the legislation. In just about anyone’s recollection, that’s the first time credit unions have been given a seat at the table to weigh in on banker legislation. And, it wasn’t just happenstance. It was the result of long and careful work with lawmakers.
CU Times: During your nearly two years as the head of CUNA, what are a few of the key changes or improvements that you’ve made at the organization?
Cheney: When I came here we already had a top-notch staff in place in all facets of the association. Since then, we've put an additional emphasis on more efficient management, primarily by adopting a flatter management structure. Key department heads report directly to me, so I've got a pretty good picture of what we do and where we stand day by day.
That's vital, because one of my own challenges is to keep in close touch with credit unions. To do that, I spend a good deal of my time traveling around the country. I've visited more than two-thirds of the states, speaking and–most importantly– listening to credit unions.
Beyond that, we are also pursuing initiatives regarding political involvement and determining a vision for credit unions. While these are not changes in the sense that we are doing something we used to do differently, both are, in some ways, a change of emphasis.
CU Times: While CUNA has helped to curb some legislation that could be harmful to credit unions, such as the $10 billion institution threshold in the debit interchange fee cap, some credit union executives have complained that there has not been a pro-credit union legislative win since HR 1151 in 1998. How do you plan to change that or change their minds about credit unions’ legislative successes?
Cheney: I understand entirely the frustrations of credit unions.
The common wisdom in Washington is that it is easier to stop legislation than it is to initiate it. However, based on what we went through to exempt most credit unions from the interchange cap, I’ve concluded that view is more of a canard than wisdom. And that’s just one example. We have successfully stopped many other initiatives that would have hampered credit unions. That alone is a full-time endeavor.
However, there is little question in my mind that initiating legislation–given the system that we have which generally favors the status quo–is a process that requires careful preparation, deep commitment and lots of patience.
There is no silver bullet. Bankers have money, influence and patience. But we have a membership base that strongly believes in the role of credit unions in their lives. And we’re putting that base to work with a 535-seat strategy, which, with the help of the leagues, will give us the ability to reach every member of Congress on a consistent and timely basis.
CU Times: CUNA has built up a significant PAC. How does that contribute to CUNA’s political successes? What are the races CUNA is watching most closely? When does the campaign support CUNA offers turn into legislative support from the members you help get elected?
Cheney: Our No. 1 criterion in supporting candidates for election or re-election is whether the candidate supports credit unions in word and action. That’s been our guiding principle over the past dozen or more years. In those cases where we think we can make a difference, we get involved beyond merely making a monetary contribution.
Having a sizable PAC means that we can have a wide scope of involvement in the political process. But our political program is more than just the PAC. We have specific programs to help our friends and to help credit unions become more involved. This includes such tools as independent expenditures, where we place ads or mailings in support of our candidates, campaign schools, working with credit unions to develop partisan communications with their members, polling, and much more.
We realize we can never outmatch the bankers in campaign money but we can do it smarter. With 93 million credit union members, which our polling shows are fiercely loyal to credit unions, we can be competitive.
CU Times: Following the financial meltdown, the NCUA obviously tightened up examinations, which has many credit unions complaining. What has CUNA done to help credit unions through tighter examinations? How has CUNA worked with the regulator to ease up in areas where they may not need to be as strict? Can you provide some specific examples?
Cheney: We opened 2011 by introducing our Credit Union Exam Bill of Rights. It is designed to give credit unions assurance that they have options in responding to most supervisory issues. Further, when they feel an examiner has overstepped his or her authority, this document points out how they are entitled to question an examiner’s findings and directives, suggest alternatives in most situations, and appeal decisions credit unions feel are unwarranted, arbitrary, inconsistent with laws and regulations, or may jeopardize their ability to serve their members.
We also unveiled last year our Examination Experience Reporting Form. Designed to strengthen CUNA's response to exam issues, we wanted to know as much as possible about credit unions' recent examination experiences, so we could take specific examples to NCUA about issues and, where it happens, regulatory overreach. In fact, we are enhancing the report form to encourage CUs to get back to us after every exam.
Both the bill of rights and the reporting form have been very helpful in bringing to the NCUA’s attention instances of concern.
CU Times: There is an air of divisiveness across the industry. What is causing this? Is credit unions’ philosophical spirit waning? What can be done to get beyond the divisiveness to reinvigorate the cooperative nature of the credit union community?
Cheney: I see and feel the spirit of credit unions all around me: Not for profit, not for charity–but for service. In my view, that’s all credit unions are attempting to do. Provide better service for their members. And, being an innovative and independent bunch, just about everybody has their own best ideas for how to go about serving their members best.
Some may call that divisive. From my point of view, it illustrates the deep interest and care that so many in the movement have about credit unions and their future.
But I do believe that credit unions would benefit from a common vision–some general agreement about where we all see the movement going over the next decade or so, and how we would like to get there.
Not everyone is going to agree on what is the best path for getting to that point 10 years down the road. However, I strongly believe that we all share some common goals for the movement. If we work together, I think we can agree on what those are and begin working on attaining them.