Ready to Run

By Camden R. Fine

Question: How long does it take for Congress to enact a new law? Answer:Much longer—and far shorter—than anyone can predict.

The U.S. Senate is commonly referred to, sometimes deferentially and sometimes facetiously, as the world’s greatest deliberative body. The description springs from the seemingly boundless debating (and delaying) powers and prerogatives given to the Senate, the proverbial saucer cooling the hot tea often brewed up by the impetuous House of Representatives. But the description also aptly applies to the whole machinery of congressional sausage-making.

Certainly, lawmaking on Capitol Hill can move exasperatingly slowly. It can take months to generate the critical mass of bipartisan consensus necessary for Congress to pass any legislation, even straightforward, broadly backed legislation. But, in truth, the wheels of lawmaking in Washington are always turning. For most of the time the wheels spin slowly. But then there are pivotal times when they speed up significantly, sometimes with relatively little warning.

Recognizing this reality is crucial to successful advocacy.

While lawmaking is dynamic and unpredictable, the process generally follows a cause and effect sequence of slow and then faster movements. The initial slower stage is like training for a marathon. It requires steady, continual effort to educate lawmakers and build momentum behind specific legislation. Policy votes always result from advocacy groundwork beforehand.

The faster movements kick in when circumstances and opportunities align. At such times, lawmakers can act very fast—a kind of legislative sprint toward final passage. A successful race to the finish—where legislation advances through hearings, markups and then to up-or-down votes on the Senate and House floors—can unfold quickly and dramatically. Nobody knows for certain when a legislative sprint may break out or how it will end if it does. But those legislative opportunities don’t happen often, so failing to capitalize on them jeopardizes months or years of valuable toil and time.

The lesson: Be ready to run at a moment’s notice!

Understanding these two gears of lawmaking (the slow and the fast) is partly what makes community bankers and ICBA such a powerful force in Washington. This is how we convinced Congress to raise the federal deposit insurance limit to $250,000 and won asset-based deposit insurance assessments. We worked on those issues for years and never gave up, even when others belittled our efforts. But when the Wall Street financial crisis changed the political dynamics, we were ready—and so were our allies on Capitol Hill. With a final burst of concentrated and coordinated action at an opportune time, we achieved tremendous successes that will benefit community banks for years to come.

Community bankers should keep both of these distinct stages of lawmaking in mind as we work with Congress to achieve meaningful regulatory relief as well as end credit union, Farm Credit System, and too-big-to-fail subsidies and competitive advantages. On these issues, after years of advocacy, ICBA and community bankers have established a strong foundation of specific principles and proposals that many lawmakers understand and support.

Members of Congress have just returned to Washington from their summer recess, and they’re setting their goals and agendas for the rest of the year. The momentum is pulling our way. Be ready. Put your sneakers on. The starting gun could sound any time.