Election Losses To Spur Overhaul Of Democratic Party's Leadership

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The loss of the ground for Democrats in both the House and the Senate last week, when they ceded majority control of the upper chamber, is expected to prompt major changes in the party structure.

The first is that some senior Democrats who were hoping to regain control of the House and thus the chairmanships of all the committees, are expected to retire before the next election.

Among those rumored to be considering retirement despite their own reelections last week are: 73-year-old John Conyers of Michigan, who was in line to become chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee if the Dems won back the House; 72-year-old Charles Rangel of New York, next in line to head the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee; 76-year- old John Dingell, who could have regained the chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee; and 71-year-old Ike Skelton of Missouri, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.

Several other senior Democrats have indicated their intent to leave Congress if their party was unable to regain its majority in the House.

Of these Democratic leaders, Dingell, the dean of the House reelected to a 25th term last week, would be the biggest loss to credit unions because of his long-standing commitment to the movement. But Dingell, as well as Conyers have been among the impediments to the bankruptcy reform bill, credit unions' top legislative priority.

Chances are the Democrats will also seek changes in their top leaders in the House and Senate, with Richard Gephardt of Missouri, rumored to be stepping down as House Minority Leader to once again pursue the presidency. Last week's election results are also expected to prompt discussions about new Senate leadership, with the possibility that a new or old face will challenge South Dakota's Tom Daschle for head of the party caucus in the Senate.

In the old days, when they controlled the House, the Democratic Party was seen as steadfast in the credit union camp. To a large extent they still are, but after last week they no longer control any of the mechanisms of power on Capitol Hill.

Consequently, the credit union movement was well-positioned after the elections to build on a growing pro-credit union consensus among Republicans.

That's not only because credit unions helped dozens of Republicans ascend to Congress, as they did for Democrats, but also because of expanding relationships with GOP leaders like House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois; Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, expected to be the next House Majority Leader; House Financial Services Committee Chairman Mike Oxley of Ohio; and Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, who will regain his post as Senate Majority Leader in the next Congress.

All four powerful figures have given their support to credit union initiatives, among them bankruptcy reform and regulatory relief, as well as HR 1151, the landmark 1998 credit union bill known as the CU Membership Access Act.

So look for a furtherance of the credit union agenda in the 108th Congress.

That means, bankruptcy reform, if it isn't finally passed during the brief lame duck session coming up, is likely to be reintroduced next year.

The new congressional climate also bodes well for regulatory relief with the same contingent that pushed the credit union-favored bill in the House this past year returning to the majority.

In the Senate, Alabama Republican Richard Shelby, a sometime critic of credit unions but a proponent of regulatory relief, is expected to become the new chairman of the Banking Committee.

Shelby, who would replace Democrat Paul Sarbanes, of Maryland as head of the panel, was believed to be looking at a regulatory relief package. Shelby's support will be critical to any efforts by credit unions who have marked regulatory relief as a major priority in the next Congress.

Perhaps most important from the credit union perspective, is that Republican control of the three legislative branches means that two potential threats; a Community Reinvestment Act, or CRA, for credit unions, and repeal of the tax exemption, will certainly be buried for the foreseeable future.

That's because Sarbanes, a major proponent of CRA, and Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank, who would have become the new chairman of the Financial Services Committee if the Democrats won back the House, were considered potential sources of a CRA proposal for credit unions.

With Sarbanes removed form the helm of the Banking Committee and Frank still relegated to the minority, the threat of such a proposal recedes significantly.

In addition, don't look for a credit union tax proposal to come out of a Republican-controlled Congress.

Such a broad-based tax which would affect 80 million credit union members is an anathema to the party that prides itself on its anti-tax tradition.

The Republican takeover of the Senate, giving them control of the House, Senate and White House, will also help speed some of President Bush's agenda benefiting credit unions.

That includes the President's faith-based initiative, plans to help finance home loans for low-and moderate-income individuals, and the expansion of retirement savings allowance.

A leading credit union lobbyist also pointed out it will speed the presidential appointment process in the courts and federal regulatory agencies.

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