No one could fault Daniel A. Mica for aiming too low.
Mr. Mica, president and chief executive officer of the Credit Union National Association, wants to achieve a sweeping overhaul of the regulations that govern credit unions. It could become the industry's answer to the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act - and he wants to do it without arousing the banking industry's opposition.
To that end, he is jumping at every chance he gets to send a message to banks: that they would be better off not assaulting the recommendations put forward by his trade group's Renaissance Commission.
"Another all-out war would not be healthy, so why pursue that course?" he said in an interview last week. "Congress is very positive toward credit unions. They don't want to see another war, so I want to offer an olive branch."
Mr. Mica may need more than that, however, to keep the banks at bay. Though short on specifics, the Renaissance Commission report, released late last month, is breathtakingly broad in scope. In essence, the 27-member, CUNA-appointed commission calls on the National Credit Union Administration to confine its regulatory activities to guaranteeing the industry's safety and soundness. The commission recommended that standards for field of membership, member business loans, services to low-income members, and other controversial policy matters be established by the industry - not regulators.
The American Bankers Association immediately voiced its objection. Edward L. Yingling, the ABA's chief lobbyist, said the report would blur the distinction between credit unions and banks while preserving the credit unions' tax exemption.
"The Renaissance Commission report blows the lid off any limits on credit unions," Mr. Yingling said. "There is no way the banking industry could support that while they retain their tax exemption."
But Mr. Mica said in an interview that banks are not giving credit unions a fair shake. CUNA did not fight passage of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, pending legislation to ease restrictions on S corporations, or an ABA-backed initiative that would let banks enter the real estate brokerage business, he pointed out. Furthermore, he said, the longtime antagonists lobbied together on bankruptcy reform legislation and privacy regulations.
"I don't see how anyone representing any counter-interest can say, 'We got our changes, and you deserve none,' " he said, adding that some in the banking industry have "targeted credit unions for termination."
Mr. Yingling said he was not impressed by Mr. Mica's overture.
"I wouldn't call it an olive branch," he said. "I'd call it a threat." Indeed Mr. Mica implied that the alternative to cooperation would be another lobbying clash like one in the late 1990s when a grassroots campaign by credit unions persuaded Congress to approve, overwhelmingly, legislation that overturned a Supreme Court victory for the banking industry. The Credit Union Membership Access Act of 1998 eased membership rules for the nonprofit financial institutions, imposed weak limits on business lending, and excluded community reinvestment requirements.
Credit union officials appear to be just as in sync this time around.
The National Association of Federal Credit Unions, the industry's second-largest trade group (CUNA is No. 1), has stopped short of openly endorsing the Renaissance Commission's work. But its president and chief executive officer, Fred Becker, said he shared Mr. Mica's resentment over the banking industry's stance.
"I'm a little perplexed by the fact that whenever credit unions want to improve the services they offer to the American consumer, the banks cry foul," he said. "NAFCU didn't stand in the banks' way on subchapter S or real estate brokerage. I'm in a quandary as to why the banks would oppose" the commission's report.
But if the report seems to be bringing the credit union trade associations closer together, it may also unify the banking industry.
"I think banks will probably be united" in opposition to the report, said Charlotte Bahin, regulatory counsel for America's Community Bankers. "It's hard for me to imagine that it would provide the kind of provisions we would consider an olive branch."
But despite his tough talk, Mr. Mica seems genuinely interested in establishing rapport with the banking industry or, at the very least, a portion of it. He said he is urging the "top 25 or 30 banks" to take the lead in reevaluating the industry's longtime antipathy for credit unions.
"After 70 years of ABA attacks, some bankers, at least at the big banks, are starting to realize that credit unions are not a threat," he said.
Mr. Mica said others agree. He said that after a Federal Reserve Board hearing last September, a central bank official pulled him aside and said: "There's no end to what you could accomplish if you could work together with the banks."