WASHINGTON-- More lawmakers than ever are talking about extending the Community Reinvestment Act to credit unions, but turning words into law could be tough.
The industry's support on Capitol Hill and the act's unpopu: laxity with some legislators present substantial hurdles, despite the interest in the subject raised by a congressional hearing last week.
Opposition to extending the act would make strange bedfellows of liberal Democrats who say credit unions fulfill the spirit of the law and Republicans who dislike the CRA, said a congressional staff member.
Some Republicans believe "CRA is a bad idea, so let's not extend a bad idea to more groups;' said a Republican House Banking Committee aide,
Also, both of the industry's chief trade groups - and the National Credit Union Administration - have been lobbying to keep the exemption intact, making votes for any bill hard to get, observers said.
But with several legislators including House Banking Committee Chairman Henry B. Gonzalez and Joseph P. Kennedy 2d, D-Mass. - calling for an end to the exemption, more calls to extend the law are likely to follow last week's hearing.
"This is not the last of hearings on dragging credit unions under CRA," said Charles O. Zuver, director of governmental affairs for the Credit Union National Association. "It was clear there were a number of representsfives who believe at least some credit unions should be subjected to CRA:'
"It makes sense to explore the issue in depth," said Rep. Tom Barrett. Described by industry trade groups and himself as friendly to credit unions, the Wisconsin Democrat nonetheless said he favors extending the CRA to institutions with broad membership bases.
Last week's hearing was held by the subcommittee on consumer credit and insurance, which Rep. Kennedy chairs. He hasn't scheduled more hearings yet, but staff members said there's a good chance he will.
"He continues to be troubled by the notion that the taxpayers who back up credit unions with deposit insurance have no right to know if those institutions meet community credit needs;' said a House Banking Committee staff member.
Representatives who favor extending the CRA to credit unions cite a need to monitor how well credit unions serve their members and a need to "level the playing field" with banks and thrifts.
Proponents of making credit unions comply with the law don't think it should be applied across the board.
"I think we should distinguish between shoe box credit unions in the back of a church and those with a large geographic base that are going head-to-head with banks," Rep. Barrett said.
But Rep. Floyd Flake, D-N.Y., called applying the CRA to credit unions "a bad idea."
Most credit unions are small, volunteer-driven institutions that would be strained to comply, said Rep. Flake a minister whose church operates a credit union,
He said larger credit unions also shouldn't be made to comply because, despite their size, they still serve the basic needs of a defined clientele, not the general public.