Northwest Credit Unions Have Impact in Meetings with Federal Legislators

With sequestration looming large and a pending vote to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, it may surprise some that 13 Northwest congressional representatives and all four U.S. senators took time to meet face-to-face with more than 200 advocates from Northwest credit unions Wednesday.

Considering those advocates represent more than 180 credit unions and 4.4 million consumer members in Oregon and Washington, the federal lawmakers made the meetings a priority. Some spent as much as half an hour listening to their constituents talk about the credit union difference and the legislation needed to maintain and improve service to members.

 The Northwest delegation was led by the Northwest Credit Union Association (NWCUA) and was among the largest contingents converging on Washington, D.C., this week for the Governmental Affairs Conference (GAC) sponsored by the Credit Union National Association (CUNA). In all, 4,200 credit union advocates attended.

The regulatory burden, member business lending (MBL), supplemental capital and a potential bank lobby threat to the credit union tax structure were among the key issues discussed with Northwest legislators in a full day of back-to-back meetings.

It surprised Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) that Congress may even consider a change to credit unions’ tax exemptions. The Oregon Democrat’s first act up taking office last year was to sign on in support of legislation to raise the MBL cap, and voters in Oregon’s 1st District easily reelected her in November.

Bonamici is again supporting MBL legislation in the House as well as legislation that would allow well-managed credit unions to raise supplemental capital. With many tax exemptions coming under scrutiny due to budget issues, advocates also informed the congresswoman that the bank lobby is pushing to eliminate the credit union tax exemption as part of sweeping, comprehensive tax reform.

“I did not even know that was a proposal,” Bonamici said, “but now that I hear this, I will be vigilant.”

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) was also surprised to learn the bank lobby may be floating a bill to remove credit unions’ tax exemption.

“That’s a pretty big fight to have,” said Herrera Beutler. “I would be surprised if they won, but these are uncertain times.”

Herrera Beutler supported the credit union MBL bill last session and was asked to do so again in the 113th Congress. The legislation would allow credit unions to lend up to 27.5 percent of their assets to small businesses. Currently the cap for credit unions is 12.25 percent

“Northwest credit unions truly shine in their advocacy efforts,” said Troy Stang, president and CEO of the NWCUA. “Credit union members should be proud to know their credit union leadership was successfully advocating in their behalf. I can honestly say our advocates changed the conversation here in Washington.”

A large number of the advocates hiking the hill this week are Volunteers. The board members had stories to share of real people who’ve fought to stay in their homes or open small businesses.

In the offices of Washington Rep. Rick Larsen, Industrial Credit Union President and CEO Terri Salstrom shared the story of how her credit union left a note on the door of a member who was about to walk away from his mortgage and offered to work with him so he could stay in his home. In 30 years, Salstrom noted, the credit union has had just two foreclosures.

The credit union difference was repeated again and again in the halls of Congress—lower fees, lower loan rates and a priority to provide better service to members, all while not engaging in the risky decisions that helped to create the Great Recession. Many of the representatives applauded credit unions for safe and sound business practices throughout the economic crisis.

Rep. Denny Heck, newly elected to serve Washington’s 10th Congressional District, received a standing ovation when he walked into his scheduled meeting with credit union advocates. Rep. Heck had delivered an emphatic endorsement of the credit union model during a well-received address at the General Session of the GAC the day before. Heck is also a former credit union employee and years-long member, so the advocates who met with him knew he was already familiar with the credit union value proposition. Their meeting was spirited and positive.

Advocates enjoyed a lively discussion in the colorful offices of Rep. Peter DeFazio, (D-Ore.), covering all of the key issues as the long-tenured DeFazio asked detailed questions, while credit union advocates who live and work in Washington’s 1st District shared their stories with Rep. Susan DelBene (D-Wash.).

A large delegation of Northwest advocates crowded into the offices of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (D-Wash.) as well. She listened attentively and asked questions about credit union legislation, and even stayed for photographs after the meeting—all as she prepared to manage debate on today’s vote to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.

Advocates scheduled to meet with Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) caught up with him in the hallway outside his office and exchanged some spirited banter with the congressman, a supporter of the MBL and supplemental capital initiatives.

Some of the representatives scheduled to meet with advocates were unable to attend, as sudden meeting conflicts or floor debates got in the way. In those cases, well-prepared staffers met with members of the Northwest team and took copious notes about the issues.

All four Northwest U.S. Senators also met with advocates, and according to Stang, conversations with Washington’s Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell had considerable impact.

“Both Senators articulated their support of the credit union cooperative charter and the tax-exempt status that allows credit unions to deliver multitudes of value back to the communities they serve,” Stang said. “Our advocates clearly made an impression on the Northwest congressional delegation.”

Meetings with Oregon’s two Democratic Senators proved equally fruitful, with both Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Jeff Merkley displaying an understanding of the fundamental value of credit unions and what separates them from banks. And for both, that translates into pledges of support.

“I believe strongly that no one should tamper with the credit union tax structure,” Wyden said.

Merkley, meanwhile, made clear that there will be many hurdles to cross for credit unions on their way to passing MBL legislation. He told Oregon advocates he is working from the inside to fix a “very, very dysfunctional” Congress.

For the advocates, the busy week was an opportunity to be close to the political process and to make a difference. Many of them traveled to Washington at their own expense to share their passion.

“This was the most powerful demonstration of the cooperative principles that I have witnessed in some time—people standing shoulder to shoulder fighting for their members,” said NWCUA Chief Operating Officer Denise Gabel. “One congressman said he wanted to hear from the ‘witnesses.’ No problem! Our members are our witnesses, and we will work tirelessly to mobilize them and shed light on their stories—credit union stories. I was so impressed and wish to thank all of our members who came to D.C., as well as those who stayed home to advance the credit union charter at the state level and those who have started to pack their bags for Salem [for the Oregon Credit Union Day at the Capitol] on the 13th.”

Jennifer Wagner, vice president of legislative advocacy for the NWCUA, expressed heartfelt gratitude to all who took time from their families and careers to participate.

“Our visits were very successful, and that is a credit to all of the work our credit union leaders have put into developing relationships with our members of Congress and their staff, and educating them about the important role credit unions play in our communities,” Wagner said.


Editor’s Note: For an inside look at this week’s CUNA GAC, visit the Association’s Facebook page.


Questions? Contact a member of the Association’s Legislative Affairs team:

Jennifer Wagner, Vice President of Legislative Advocacy
Mark Minickiello, Vice President of Legislative Affairs
Pam Leavitt, Policy Advisor

Posted in Around the NW, Awards, Community Impact, Financial Education, NWCUA.