In the life of an ICBA lobbyist

Brian Cooney & John Hand
Illustration: Randall Nelson

The word “lobbyist” might conjure up smoky backrooms and furtive meetings on park benches, but the reality is a little different. Two ICBA lobbyists take us behind the scenes at Capitol Hill, where they’re working hard to advance the community banking agenda.

By Kelly Pike

There are more than 11,000 registered lobbyists roaming the halls of Congress, and they all have one job: to influence our elected representatives.

It’s not an easy task. There are more than 20 lobbyists for every legislator, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and each one of them is busy playing both offense and defense on a wide variety of bills at any one time.

ICBA is no different. The association employs a team of seasoned lobbyists to represent community banks’ interests on Capitol Hill. These influencers gather information, educate members of Congress about critical issues and try to secure the best outcome for community banks. Most of all, they build relationships, connecting and communicating with Congress to become trusted sources of information.

Brian Cooney, ICBA senior vice president and legislative counsel, congressional relations, says, “I utilize my eyes, ears and voice to advocate for community banks on a daily basis.”

The word “lobbyist” conjures an image of smoke-filled hotel lobbies—particularly one D.C. hotel that has claimed to be the source of its origination—but the term actually comes from the lobbies of the British House of Commons, where citizens used to petition their members of parliament, according to an NPR interview with an Oxford English Dictionary editor.

It’s a relatively apt description of today’s lobbyist, according to John Hand, ICBA first vice president, congressional relations. His days are spent meeting with congressional staff and lawmakers, taking notes at hearings, making phone calls and reporting it all back to the community bankers he represents.

It’s all very transparent, he says, due to government reforms and technology changes pushing legislative work out of back rooms and into the light of day. “As a lobbyist, there are no shortcuts,” Hand says.

But there are a lot of members of Congress—535, to be exact. That means ICBA’s lobbyists have to be strategic about which members they reach out to and when.

Most of their attention is focused on Senate and House leadership and members of committees vital to community bank interests, including Senate Banking, House Financial Services, Senate Finance, House Ways and Means, and others representing small business and agriculture. These leaders are the ones who set the agenda, hold hearings and vote in committees.

They are also extremely busy. ICBA’s daily contact with Congress is with both congressional representatives and their key staff members. From chiefs of staff to office receptionists, congressional staffers are more than gatekeepers. They are critical advisors, collecting intelligence to share with their bosses. Relationships with them are extremely important and are cultivated just as carefully as those with elected representatives. Direct conversations with members are reserved for the most important issues. “We respect their time and their calendar,” says Cooney.

A passionate profession
Lobbying is an all-encompassing career, ideal for hardworking policy wonks with great interpersonal skills. It’s not just a job, lobbyists say. It’s a passion that combines the thrill of politics with technical detail.

Cooney entered the field more than 30 years ago after working as an attorney with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and representing banks and savings and loans in private practice. He had no political experience at the time, but his expertise caught the attention of the Mortgage Bankers Association, which took a chance on him and hired him as a lobbyist.

“You need to put yourself in the shoes of the member of Congress you’re communicating with and give them the information they need to make an informed decision.”
—Brian Cooney, ICBA

Hand took the more traditional route, working on Capitol Hill for Eric Cantor, the former Republican congressman from Virginia who served on the House Financial Services Committee and later went on to become House Majority Leader. Hand joined ICBA in 2007 to work for ICBPAC, ICBA’s nonpartisan political action committee, before moving into government relations.

He says his preexisting relationship with Cantor was extremely valuable, giving him inroads that helped ensure the political leadership heard the community banking point of view. But Washington, D.C., is known for its turnover, and Congress has seen an uptick in departures over the past decade, making it critical that lobbyists build new relationships when incumbents retire or are voted out of office.

Until Republicans won back the House in 1994, Democrats had controlled it for 40 years. The Republicans held it for 12 years. Today, the electorate tends to be more volatile, with control of the House switching twice over the past decade. As a result, lobbyists not only find themselves frequently starting anew with recently elected legislators; they also deal with incumbents who are increasingly cautious about every choice they make, worried that it could cost them the next election, Hand says.

House rules
That’s why it’s essential that lobbyists behave ethically, providing congressional members with honest, accurate and transparent information.

“You need to put yourself in the shoes of the member of Congress you’re communicating with and give them the information they need to make an informed decision,” says Cooney. That means telling them not only who supports the position but also who opposes it so they aren’t caught off guard. It can also be helpful to tell them where the chairman or other high-ranking member of a committee sits on the issue. From there, a lobbyist is free to explain why his or her position is the right one.

Lobbyists who make their points candidly do more than advocate directly for ICBA. They also build relationships with legislators, often becoming valuable resources. Congress members vote on thousands of issues every year, and they can’t be an expert in them all. They and their staff welcome the expertise of lobbyists who have proven themselves reliable.

ICBA’s lobbyists also try to serve as a resource to staffers on Capitol Hill, providing background or research if a constituent has a financial services problem. Many Hill staffers are in their 20s, and while they are highly educated, they often have limited experience with loans, mortgages or the financial market.

“In politics, personal relationships and trusting people still comes into play,” says Cooney. “It’s being viewed as a credible source for information.”

“I utilize my eyes, ears and voice to advocate for community banks on a daily basis”
—Brian Cooney, ICBA

It also means being available outside of the nine to five. From breakfast meetings to an evening fundraiser, lobbyists put in long days. Cooney keeps his work phone on until eight or nine at night just in case a staffer calls.

“You never know when you’ll get a question from Capitol Hill,” he says. “A staffer could be stuck working on something for her boss and need a question answered now for a memo that has to be on her boss’s desk tomorrow morning. We need to be on call for those kinds of communications.”

When relationships are strong, a staffer might call asking for a lobbyist’s opinion on a proposed amendment when a bill comes to a committee for markup (see “Lobbying 101,” left). Being a go-to source for Congress is increasingly essential as others in financial services, including credit unions, fintech firms and too-big-to-fail institutions, grow their presence on Capitol Hill.

In the end, the greatest challenge lobbyists face isn’t the competition. It’s the polarized environment on Capitol Hill and throughout D.C. in general, Hand says. “Partisan gridlock makes legislative progress more difficult than it was in previous environments.”

Kelly Pike is a writer in Virginia.