To win in Washington, community bankers must put time and money into building relationships with their representatives in Congress, veteran lobbyist Rick Miller advised.
Rather than relying on national trade groups to speak for them, bankers must volunteer for campaigns, cultivate staff members, and make political donations, he said.
"You, as bankers, are your best advocates," Mr. Miller told a gathering of bankers at the Independent Community Bankers of America's annual convention here this week. "We are just hired guns."
Mr. Miller, vice president at Michael E. Dunn & Associates in Arlington, Va., said volunteering is crucial. "There is nothing more precious you can give to another human being than time," he said. "It'll never be forgotten."
Grassroots lobbying has emerged as a major priority for the banking industry. Since banks lost last year's fight in Congress over credit unions' fields of membership, the major industry trade groups have been urging their members to get more involved in politics.
"Bankers just don't participate because they are too busy running their banks," said Russell Carothers, chairman, president, and chief executive officer at Citizens Bank of Winfield (Ala.) and a contributor to the IBAA's political action committee. Mr. Carothers said he knows of one lawmaker who got more than 15,000 letters from credit union members in support of the credit union bill and only 50 from bankers opposing it.
Mr. Carothers said he has accepted the credit union defeat and does not expect Congress to enact credit union taxation merely to appease bankers. But he said banks stand a better chance of winning tax relief of their own if individual bankers step up lobbying efforts.
Bankers, however, must begin work now by getting to know their representatives. "When it's time to go to war, it's too late to establish a relationship," said John E. Cederberg, an industry lobbyist in Nebraska.
Mr. Miller offered other suggestions for effectively communicating with lawmakers.
He said bankers should get to know staff members in the lawmaker's home office as well as his chief of staff, legislative aides, and appointment secretary in Washington.
All letters, he said, should be addressed properly-making sure the lawmaker is referred to as "Honorable"-and should detail how proposed legislation would affect the bank.
Finally, he said, limit all letters to a single page.
"Do you really want a 21-year-old intern who knows nothing about banking condensing a sophisticated letter of yours down to one page?" Mr. Miller asked.