I came to Washington, D.C., from Missouri’s capital city, Jefferson City, in May 2003 to take over as president and CEO of the Independent Community Bankers of America. With my retirement just weeks away, I’ve been reflecting on the biggest changes I’ve seen in my 15 years in Washington, including the rise of technology in our everyday lives and the divisive, often partisan tone that’s been adopted in policymaking.
The nation’s capital in May 2003 was about as different from today’s Washington as an early BlackBerry is from an iPhone X. When I first walked into ICBA’s offices, much of the staff had flip phones and not everyone had a desktop computer. There was no “social media” at all, and nobody worried about cybersecurity, the dark web or other technologically sinister forces.
There were no iPhones or iPads, fax machines were still in general use, and a cool new coffee maker called a Keurig was catching on in offices all over town. The technology explosion was just on the horizon but not yet fully in view.
Profound changes have occurred culturally, socially and politically in Washington over the past 15 years. In 2003, Enron and WorldCom were still nationwide scandals rocking both the corporate and political worlds. Congress was in a froth to do something about corporate greed and wrongdoing and to rein in senior executives.
Much to the chagrin of corporate America, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (the Dodd-Frank of its time) had been in place for less than a year. And astonishingly by today’s standards, Republican Rep. Michael Oxley of Ohio and Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes of Maryland worked together as committee chairmen to craft a very unpopular bill enacting tough new regulations and controls on America’s largest corporations. Can you imagine that today?
While there were bitter debates on the floor of the House and Senate, the tone, language and temperament of those debates was largely civil and respectful. And the divisions often ended when the members left the Capitol building for the various watering holes sprinkled around Capitol Hill. It is a sharp contrast to today’s bitter and seemingly unending partisanship.
Technology advances have fundamentally changed the politics and culture of Washington (and much of the rest of the country). Having access to unlimited knowledge and information has changed the political and cultural paradigm. Interest groups, large and small, can be instantly turned on and off. Coalitions can be formed overnight.
There is no longer any expectation of privacy for public officials or even those who lobby them. Every policymaker is under an intense microscope 24/7. And everyone seeks desperately to be a celebrity or to differentiate themselves in outlandish ways to get noticed. Everyone, it seems, wants their 15 minutes of fame.
Over the past 15 years I have witnessed an explosion in grassroots sophistication among associations and other influence groups. Every interest group and voting block is sliced and diced to the nth degree. And like a drug addict, it takes more and more money and technological sophistication to get the same buzz from those you are trying to reach.
Money and power have become conjoined so that one feeds off the other in a vicious cycle that has disillusioned the general public to the point that there is a great undercurrent of unrest across the nation that breaks out into the open from time to time — think Occupy Wall Street. People feel powerless and believe the only way to fight back against the money interests is at the ballot box. That often results in election extremes favoring the far left and right, with barely a middle ground, and unpredictable national outcomes in presidential elections. It is almost a Yeatsian turning of the gyre — the center cannot hold.
When I came to Washington, nonpartisan associations like ICBA were the norm. Today we are an endangered species. Middle ground has become a very narrow space between the trenches — a kind of political no man’s land where partisans from both sides of the political spectrum threaten to consign the nonpartisan association to political ostracization. But associations like ICBA need to exist to at least try to form a pragmatic center to an otherwise polarized Washington.
The pace and pressure of being CEO of a large trade group is beyond crazy, which explains why the average tenure is a little more than five years. Because of social media and technological marvels, everyone can reach the CEO at the touch of a button 24 hours a day — and they do.
Today’s trade group CEO is never “off” or “down.” I have given press interviews and debated members of Congress while on beach vacations with my family. Trade group CEOs, and more and more members of Congress, often resign due to the lack of personal or family time. These jobs leave no room for a family or personal life, and burnout is high. People aspiring to run a major trade group in Washington better have their eyes wide open and fully understand what they are signing up for. Many do not, and they don’t last long.
As I hand the ICBA reins over to my very able successor, Rebeca Romero Rainey, my most important piece of advice to her is to not get caught up in the faux celebrity of the nation’s capital. Stay grounded and be yourself. And don’t let the bastards get you down.