Smoke & Fears: Lessons In How Washington Deals With Change
I knocked twice, positive I had heard some shuffling behind the door. Still no answer. I thought about checking the address, but had been here a half-dozen times before and was positive I was in the right place. 1776 Duke Street? Yep. The name of the proprietor carved in the stone façade facing the street: National Credit Union Administration? Yep, this was the place.
I knocked again, this time rapping pretty hard on the glass. I recalled on my last visit the glass in the doors was clear and unobstructed and at that time you could easily see into the lobby where the security guard sat protecting the building from whomever might awake in the morning with a grand plan to attack an obscure federal regulatory agency. Or at least the subset of unimaginative attackers whose plan calls for using the front door and signing in at the front desk.
But this day there were newspapers taped to the windows, obscuring the view. I was pleased to at least see the agency had used pages torn from Credit Union Journal, and made a mental note that this might make for a future marketing piece: “The Credit Union Journal–Not Just A View Into Credit Unions, But For Credit Unions Who Don’t Want a View.”
Once more I rapped on NCUA’s front door and once more I heard some shuffling and whispers. Finally, in what was clearly something out of a Monty Python sketch, a man in a voice disguised like Mike Tyson on helium answered, “Um, there’s no one heee-eere. Please go away.” I looked around for the webcam, confident I was being broadcast in real time on some top secret fed agency website. Probably Homeland Security.
“Um, I kinda know you’re in there,” I said to the door, giving my name and pushing a business card under the door. I could hear more hushed shuffling from the other side of newspaper-covered door. “I’m here to get some comment from NCUA on what you think of the Fed plan to consolidate it with other financial regulatory agencies.”
Suddenly I could clearly hear more activity from beyond the glass, yet there was still no answer; just the ongoing pretending that no one was home in a building in which several hundred people worked. A minute or two more passed, and I gave up, finally deciding to walk around to the side of the building that had once been derided as the Rog Mahal by critics of former Chairman Roger Jepsen, during whose term the big new headquarters in Alexandria, Va. had been approved. That’s when I saw them–a group of folks standing in the shadows near an open door adjacent to the loading dock (I made another mental note to check sometime on just what has to be loaded and unloaded at NCUA; I envisioned pallets of prohibition orders or the catalog-thick listings of federal holidays). There were at least six of them, maybe more, shrouded in a Beijing-blue haze. The smokers! Right then I knew I had hit paydirt, or in this case, the tar pits. Smokers are the one group that always knows what’s going on. I inhaled my last clean breath, stepped into the cloud, and introduced myself to the first man I bumped into.
“I’m trying to find someone to give me comment on this Fed proposal to rollup the agency with the FDIC and others,” I said.
“Never happen,” the man hacked. “These kinds of proposals come around every few years and nothing comes of them. It’s all thanks to dear old dad.”
From inside the cloud I heard coughs of agreement. “Whose dad?” I asked, confused.
“Not someone’s dad,” came the snippy response. “D.A.D. Don’t Answer Door. Eventually the people backing these proposals just go away.”
“But how do you know this D.A.D. strategy will work?” I asked. “It seems, well, kinda simplistic; someone will figure it out.”
There was silence as he took another puff, and I realized I was standing amongst a group of examiners who were back at HQ for another round of training in increasingly sophisticated CU balance sheets. Challenge a credit union over something and the CU’s CEO is immediately on the phone with the regional office complaining they are being stifled. Let something go unquestioned and it was a carpet call at that same regional office because the credit union was headed for conservatorship. So why not just suck down another carton of nic sticks and take advantage of that top-notch federal health plan?
“The D.A.D. strategy is time-proven,” he finally answered. “I shouldn’t even be tellin’ you about it, but we learned about it from another federal agency.”
“Really? Which one,” I pressed.
He took another drag. “Department of Steam Train Regulation,” he finally responded in a hoarse whisper. I replayed what he had just said in my head. “But there haven’t been steam trains in the U.S. in 50, 60 years,” I responded incredulously.
“Exactly,” came his confident answer. “And yet their ’08 budget is up almost 4%.”
This was all too much, too, well, Washington. I turned and found my way back out of the cloud and eventually into the sunshine, seeing the light now in so many ways. My eyes were tearing, whether from the smoke or the brilliance of the plan or the sun or all three, I didn’t know. I considered for a moment returning to the front door, but knowing now that no one would ever answer for at least another couple of weeks, perhaps not until after the next election, I chose not to. I sunk back into my rental car, realizing just how government proposals can come and go like lousy visiting relatives, but DAD is always around.
Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann