You have the power

Last month, we looked at how ICBA’s lobbyists work to advance the association’s agenda on behalf of community bankers across the country. But as we learned, they can’t do it without members’ help. Here’s why, and how you can get involved.

By Kelly Pike

The boardrooms and teller stations of community banks can seem a long way from Capitol Hill. While members of Congress debate bills and navigate partisan rancor, community bankers focus on the direct, practical needs of their institutions and customers. Many prefer to leave politics to the professionals, relying on ICBA and its team of experienced lobbyists to promote and protect their interests in Washington, D.C. But Congress isn’t as far away as most community bankers think.

Each of the 535 members of Congress represents a state or district filled with the people who elected him or her. While legislators work with lobbyists to help them sort through the overwhelming number of issues before them, they can’t rely exclusively on their input. Legislators who want to keep their jobs—and that’s all of them—seek constituent feedback to help them make decisions.

If you missed our interview with Brian Cooney and John Hand last month, find it at independentbanker.org

That’s where community bankers come in. In politics, as in banking, personal relationships and trust still come into play. Whether it’s in Washington, D.C., or back at home, communication between bankers and elected officials plays a critical role in supporting the work of ICBA’s lobbyists. Lobbyists can explain the pros and cons of an issue or help a member understand which other members support a bill, but only community bankers can provide personal, real-world insight into how a bill or banking issue will ultimately affect their communities.

“Members of Congress aren’t going to vote for a bill because Brian Cooney asked them to,” says Brian Cooney, ICBA senior vice president and senior legislative counsel, congressional relations, whose lobbying career has spanned more than 30 years. “When a member decides whether or not to support a particular piece of legislation, they do it through a prism of their districts and home state—as they should. They are going to vote because they have heard from a community banker whom they trust from back home.”

Real results
This isn’t just the observation of longtime lobbyists. A study released by the Congressional Management Foundation earlier this year found, “Direct constituent interactions have more influence on lawmakers’ decisions than other advocacy strategies.” More than 90 percent of congressional staff surveyed over 10 years said undecided lawmakers could be swayed by constituents who visited in person, the study found.

Consider the results of the 2016 ICBA Capital Summit, where nearly 1,000 community bankers flew into Washington, D.C., to lobby for regulatory and tax relief. Over the next two weeks, the House Financial Services Committee voted for several of ICBA’s key regulatory relief bills. Other times, bankers have successfully asked members of Congress to cosponsor ICBA-backed regulatory relief bills, building the momentum to get the bill a hearing, through markup or onto the floor for a vote.

“When a member decides whether or not to support a particular piece of legislation, they do it through a prism of their districts and home state—as they should.”
—Brian Cooney, ICBA

The same Congressional Management Foundation study also found members of Congress and their staff are interested in information about how an issue will affect their state or district, with 79 percent saying “a personal story from a constituent related to the bill or issue would be helpful.” Yet just 9 percent say they frequently receive information about community impact and just 18 percent frequently hear helpful personal stories.

Sometimes, lawmakers hear nothing at all, which can directly undercut a lobbyist’s work, as Cooney can attest.

“I’ve had situations with other advocacy groups where a member of Congress tells me that what I’m saying is all well and good, but he hasn’t heard from anyone in his district about this,” he recalls. “That’s not something that will help advance the position you’re advocating as a lobbyist.”

How to be heard

There are more options for reaching out to Congress than ever before, from social media and email to old-fashioned phone calls, faxes and letters. But the very best thing bankers can do is take a page from their own playbook and build relationships with members of Congress and their staff.

That means more than the occasional email. Community bankers should introduce themselves to members and key staff and reach out to them when they are in town. They can invite them to the bank so they can learn more about what the bank does and how the regulatory burden limits its ability to make loans. Bankers can attend functions and fundraisers and aid lawmakers by providing insight into the district or state. They can participate in ICBA’s annual Capital Summit to help send a message of industry strength.

“It’s got to be an ongoing process for bankers,” says John Hand, ICBA first vice president, congressional relations, who notes that often months go by without a member voting on anything related to community banking. When the time comes to ask for support for a piece of legislation or other issue, bankers with a relationship will be in the best position to get results.

Those who don’t take the initiative to engage with members of Congress could be leaving an opening for foes. Credit unions are known for their tremendous grassroots support, flying in credit union members to defend the institutions’ power grabs and unfair tax advantage. It makes their message, coming from voters, hard to ignore.

“It’s more important now than ever before that bankers are engaged,” sums up Hand. “Members of Congress need to hear from bankers. There is no way around that.” ­

—Kelly Pike


Kelly Pike is a writer in Virginia.

comments powered by Disqus
Top