Advocacy lessons from 20 years ago still apply today

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The passage of HR 1151 and President Clinton signing the Credit Union Membership Access Act into law 20 years ago may seem like ancient history to some, but the credit union movement wouldn’t be where it is today without those efforts – indeed, it might not exist at all.

Despite the passage of two decades, credit unions today find themselves in a similar position to where they were 20 years ago – fighting for the right to expand their fields of membership. After a legal battle that made it all the way to the Supreme Court in 1998, our movement wound up with new legislation to help keep the industry alive. Without that legislation, tens of millions of Americans would have lost their credit union membership status and today’s financial services landscape would be entirely different.

There have been a lot of arm-chair quarterbacks over the years who say credit unions gave up too much with HR 1151, and that we shouldn’t have let certain regulations and new provisions go into the bill. It’s important to remember, however, that the entire process started with one letter – an attempt to change the wording in a federal statute from “group” to “groups.” Eventually we wound up with a bill several hundred pages long that led to an all-out war between credit unions and bankers. The bankers were able to have some regulations imposed on us that we would have preferred not to have, but they only won the battle. We won the war.

We wouldn’t have won, however, had we not had advocates on our side. For one thing, we had a young hot shot lawyer from the firm of Hogan & Hartson named John Roberts – you may have heard of him. But we also had a host of lawmakers who were willing to stand up and fight for the right to increase access to affordable financial services – advocates like Newt Gingrich, Paul Kanjorski and Steve LaTourette. Most importantly, however, we had the support of credit union members from across the country. State credit union leagues and trade associations were willing to put aside their differences and mobilize credit union members from all 50 states for a rally that drew thousands of CU supporters to Washington DC.

We did it once and we can do it again.

Twenty years may seem like a long time, but there are a great many similarities between today and 1998. Back then we had a polarizing president embroiled in a scandal while Congress was at loggerheads with talk of impeachment. Sound familiar?

Yet despite all that, the credit union cause resonated with legislators because we remained bipartisan and stuck to the message that our industry could provide better financial services for all Americans. That’s the lesson we need today. Many leaders across our industry have become increasingly partisan – even if they haven’t intended to – because the country as a whole is so divided. Our movement can be most successful when we keep our personal politics to ourselves and work on both sides of the aisle.

We’re going to need that spirit of bipartisanship if we hope to make headway in the fights looming in 2019 and beyond. I’m convinced the 2018 midterms were absolutely the beginning of the next round for credit unions. This country and Congress are going to be searching high and low for revenue during the next several years because the national deficit is so high. And I’m convinced there will be more major efforts to tax credit unions. Believe me, the bankers aren’t going to let that go at a time when Congress is looking for revenue.

Partisanship is at a peak now, as it was 20 years ago during the Credit Union Campaign for Consumer Choice. But if we don’t put political positioning aside and focus on what matters to American consumers, we may not have the same success we enjoyed two decades ago.

Dan Mica is a principal at the DMA Group and was CEO of the Credit Union National Association in 1998 when the Credit Union Membership Access Act was signed into law.

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