In my roles over the years at Credit Union Times, I’ve attended 11 of the last 12 Governmental Affairs Conferences held by CUNA–forgive me a maternity leave. The event always attracts high-caliber members of Congress who are key connections for credit unions to develop. It also attracts the largest credit union crowd of any conference around, and Washington, D.C., isn’t normally as pleasant in February and March as it has been this year.
Sitting down to write this column, I was thinking, as you may, “What good does it do to have congressmen and senators, who often know relatively little about credit unions specifically, come speak to the group?” How is it beneficial to credit unions to listen to members of Congress, particularly in an election year, spout off about their pet political projects or sometimes make campaign stump speeches?
Now CUNA’s PR team and GAC organizers can breathe a sigh of relief because here’s why it’s crucial: Credit union executives are in Washington to build relationships. Many travel hundreds to thousands of miles to help demonstrate a strong front for the credit union community. You’re putting your face in front of the Washington elite so they know you exist because, aside from putting thousands of voting constituents in front of them, you want something from them.
Sit through their political diatribes, applaud when they announce they’re a proud member of a credit union because you expect them to at least listen politely to what’s at the top of your mind and may be of lesser importance to them. Issues like supplemental capital can be great fun for some former accountant members of Congress, but many won’t get it. They have staffers who get it for them, so don’t be offended if you end up in a Capitol Hill office with a legislative assistant. They study the issues and advise the member on the issues.
CUNA CEO Bill Cheney has been rolling out the trade group’s 535-seat strategy, essentially to have contacts in every office in the U.S. House and Senate. CUNA members pay dues for political and legislative strategizing and the day-to-day boots on the ground, but the real strength lies in the credit unions. Every credit union should have someone designated to make regular contact with the appropriate politicians at a bare minimum. The credit union should decide how often the designee should visit. Many credit unions also participate in campaigns, which is a great way to get noticed. If a credit union isn’t comfortable with that, nonpartisan Get Out the Vote efforts are also good tools. Given credit unions’ one-member, one-vote mantra, supporting democracy is obvious.
Credit unions need to up their own games. If you’re volunteering, great. Keep it up and do more. If you’re donating, keep it up and do more. If you’re working on a nonpartisan GOTV campaign, how can you expand that using social media? Even if you’re not comfortable with supporting one candidate over another, you can make members aware of certain issues that are important to your credit union, such as a sustainable energy bill that might be heading up for a vote.
The credit union community will need to have this foundation of political involvement, not only internally, but with credit union members should a life threatening issue, like Treasury’s proposal to combine the federal banking regulators, arise. Hosting debates between candidates at your headquarters or inviting politicians to cut the ribbon on your new branch are great ways to grab attention that don’t necessarily have to be partisan. These types of events also build credibility among your members on political issues and as a pillar of the community.
For the 2012 GAC, the issues may seem somewhat like a belated Groundhog Day. Supplemental capital and member business lending will be the issues on tap. Business loans in particular have gotten more attention of late as the jobs bill winds its way toward a vote in the Senate.
CUNA wrote the Democrat and Republican heads of the Senate Banking Committee, “We estimate that if this bill became law, credit unions could lend an additional $13 billion to small businesses, helping them create 140,000 new jobs in the first year after enactment, at no cost to taxpayers.”
Likewise, NAFCU wrote the majority and minority leaders that it is withholding support for the bill unless a provision is included to expanding credit union’s business lending authorities.
The efforts of CUNA and NAFCU can only go so far. The credit union community needs you to be the muscle.