Squeezing A Hundred Years Of Change Into Just Five

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Steve LaTourette was a relatively unknown congressman who knew little about issues facing credit unions until getting a surprise call from then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Six months into his new job as CEO, Dan Mica was trying to shovel CUNA out from under a credit card operation-it was raking in an impressive $70 million in revenues, but spending $74 million to get it-when he was informed of a court decision that will "put credit unions out of business." NCUA Chairman Dennis Dollar was then managing a credit union, having just lost a race for a seat in Congress and figuring he would never get to Washington and would remain in Southern Mississippi.

And credit unions themselves in 1997 were far-flung, disorganized and wholly uninterested in politics, a "movement" moving in different directions in Washington that would need a strong jolt to change. It got it.

It has been almost five years since President Clinton signed HR 1151, the Credit Union Membership Access Act, into law. Five years. As we grow older all of us are astonished at how fast time is passing, and yet most in attendance at a commemoration luncheon at Credit Union House nodded in agreement when Maura Hampton, a former CUNA lobbyist who is now executive assistant to NCUA board member Joann Johnson, noted, "It seems like a hundred years ago." Indeed it does.

The credit union community of 1998 does seem "last century" in more ways than one. The site of Credit Union House with its view of the Capitol dome was a vacant lot not on anyone's mind back in 1998. Now that vacant lot is the launching point for a hundred-plus "Hike the Hills" every year, and it has the capability to handle more than 100 phone lines when word needs to be spread or arms twisted-fast. Credit unions that used to brag about coming to Washington only to ask for nothing have done such a 180 that there are mattresses and provisions in the basement of CU House for those times CUs go to their own alert-level red (perhaps not surprising since CU House officially opened Sept 11, 2001).

The lawsuit that began with a simple phone call by North Carolina banker Jim Culbertson would go on some eight years later to have profound effects on far more than just credit unions. It would affect banks, the balance of power in lobbying and influence in Washington, the careers of congressmen, and the American people themselves. Even CUNA and NAFCU worked together-although NAFCU wasn't given so much as a mention during the luncheon. CUNA went from being a Wisconsin-based association with a small office in Washington to a slick, Washington-based power with a former congressman at the helm and offices somewhere back in the Midwest.

"You were the last people in Washington to know your own power," observed Paul Kanjorski.

Kanjorski, the Democrat from Pennsylvania, has witnessed more of the transformation in credit unions than anyone else, and been transformed himself in the process-as has the Ohio representative from across the aisle who joined him in co-sponsoring HR 1151, LaTourette. Like ClintonandLewinsky and MagicandBird, CUNA's Dan Mica observed that KanjorskiandLatourette have become merged in the credit union lexicon into one word. "And when that word is looked up in the credit union dictionary, it is defined as 'hero,'" said Mica.

There were many heroes in 1996, 1997 and 1998 in what would be called the Campaign for Consumer Choice. The luncheon at Credit Union House celebrated the best-known names, but those who really deserved to be toasted weren't there, nor will they ever be because they did so much of the behind-the-scenes labor. They wrote letters. Made phone calls. Created posters. Stuffed envelopes. Made it impossible for some congressmen to get a moment's peace or even open the doors to their homes because so much mail had been stuffed through the slot.

Those types of things become forgotten because the further away we move from something the harder it is to see the little things, until they just disappear. So KanjorskiandLatourette are remembered, as are the landslide votes for HR 1151, 411-8 in the House and 92-6 in the Senate. Few recall that the bill came very close to death in committee. "To the uninformed observer, the vote would suggest this was an easy piece of legislation," noted Sen. Paul Sarbanes. "But there were many instances along the path where it could have been knocked off the tracks."

LaTourette, who was a sophomore congressman representing northern Ohio when he agreed to co-sponsor the bill, shared with those at the luncheon something many did not know-the price to signing on as co-sponsor. "I got a call from (then-Ohio-based Bank One) telling me, 'You've lost all your friends and you're going to lose $50,000 to $70,000 in fundraising. You had a promising career-now it's over."

LaTourette must relish telling that story. Bank One has moved onto Chicago, and he's been re-elected with huge amounts of support from Ohio's credit unions-credit unions that learned vital lessons in how to play politics, thanks to the banks. That's something else no one-especially the banks-ever envisioned a short (and long) five years ago.

The actual fifth anniversary of HR 1151 won't occur until August 7 of this year. That was the day President Clinton signed it into law and The Credit Union Journal was proud to be the only credit union publication in the Oval Office for the signing. I've noted in this space before that every credit union should create an Aug. 7 Committee, even if it's just one person, whose sole job is to keep the credit union mindful of what makes it unique-and why others want to change that.

And if you don't believe things can change, imagine what can happen in just five years. After all, the bankers just filed another FOM lawsuit.

Frank J. Diekmann is the editor of The Credit Union Journal. He can be reached at 888-832-2929, or at fdiekmann cujournal.com.

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