The main event on the credit union social calendar took place this week in Washington, and the American Bankers Association did its best to crash the party.

As a horde of credit-union conventioneers arrived in the capital for the Credit Union National Association's annual conference, the ABA launched an advertising campaign aimed at battering credit unions that, it argued, are getting too big for their britches.

In addition to running a classic inside-the-Beltway campaign of radio and print ads, the ABA hand-delivered to each member of Congress a brochure that attacks credit unions’ tax exemption. The lobbying group argued that credit unions have outgrown their original mission and are now indistinguishable from banks — aside, of course, from paying no federal taxes.

The brochure names a handful of credit unions that have been living the high life, building "extravagant" new headquarters, paying for stadium naming rights and issuing "big toy loans" to help the rich finance yachts and private jets.

The campaign was intended to coincide with the CUNA conference, at which thousands of credit-union leaders mingle with lawmakers and discuss policy. The campaign was intended to "make their conversations more difficult," ABA Chief Executive Frank Keating said in a weekly memo to his association's board.

Advocacy groups have been bickering about credit union' tax status for years. As the ABA ads saturated the D.C. airwaves, the nearly 4,400 CUNA conventioneers listened to speeches and watched videos urging them to defend the tax exemption, attendees said.

The ABA's dream of pressuring Congress to remove the exemption remains just that. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) said Wednesday that a draft tax-reform bill will not include a repeal of credit unions' federal tax exemption.

While the ABA regroups for the next skirmish, CUNA is crowing that its members' favored tax status has survived for another year.

"We believe the banking lobby would be better served focusing on other issues," CUNA President and Chief Executive Bill Cheney said in an email to American Banker.

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