If last year's passage of a liberal membership law was not proof enough that credit unions have grassroots lobbying down to a science, an industry conference last week erased any doubt.

"This thing's better organized than the Academy Awards," said Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md., one of eight lawmakers to address the crowd of 3,000 and receive a thank-you plaque from the Credit Union National Association. He was feted the night before at a Maryland Credit Union League fund- raiser.

CUNA invites credit union staff members and volunteers to Washington once a year for a one-day lobbying blitz on Capitol Hill. This year's focus: bankruptcy reform. The trade group, whose president is former U.S. Rep. Daniel A. Mica, rallies its troops with a blend of patriotism, religion, and anti-bank invective.

Attendees were greeted last Monday morning with music from the Marine Corps Band, which played "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "The Star- Spangled Banner" as the Armed Forces Color Guard marched about with flags and rifles. A prayer thanking God for the recent legislative victory followed.

The martial flavor was no coincidence. Credit unions are at war, they were reminded, and the enemy is the banking industry.

"The bankers are real pains," said Nancy L. Pierce, chairwoman of CUNA's board and chief executive officer of $188 million-asset Mazuma Credit Union, Kansas City, Mo.

Not every lawmaker preached to the choir. Rep. John J. LaFalce, ranking Democrat on the House Banking Committee, chastised the National Credit Union Administration for drafting membership rules far more permissive than Congress allegedly intended. The New Yorker did so despite an apparent attempt by CUNA to soften his resolve by giving him a plaque before his speech, not afterward, as they did for the other lawmakers.

"I do not understand how NCUA can take the title and first page of a complex bill to ... expand, merge, and consolidate the credit union industry, but completely ignore the remaining 37 pages of the bill that impose significant limitations," he said.

He warned that unless credit unions remain "true to their core values" of serving the underserved, they risk being perceived as "de facto banks" by Congress. The subtext was clear: taxation and Community Reinvestment Act-like requirements may be forthcoming.

Rep. LaFalce was not alone. NCUA Chairman Norman E. D'Amours, who once served with him on the House Banking Committee, criticized his fellow board members for not focusing on underserved communities. Ms. Pierce said CUNA has formed a task force to explore problems faced by small credit unions.

But for the moment, Rep. LaFalce's bark was worse than his bite. He showed no inclination to block implementation of the NCUA's membership rules. Instead he said he plans to introduce a bill that would create a separate entity within the NCUA for nurturing small credit unions.

Meanwhile, several other lawmakers gushed.

"Enough is enough," said Senate Banking Committee member Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., referring to the latest banking industry lawsuit against the NCUA. "Stop suing, and start focusing on the business of lending."

"If someone wants to try to raise taxes on your members, let me tell you right now: they will not succeed," Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., said to thunderous applause.

CUNA also demonstrated the type of sharp thinking that supports its legislative strategies. The group asked each credit union to draft and adopt a mission statement describing its commitment to members. Those 11,000 statements could come in handy if Congress ever gets serious about taxing credit unions.

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