Fighting hard on the Hill

ICBA’s newest lobbyists, Amy Forester Roberti and Steve Keen, explain why they relish the fight for community banks—and why, even in the most turbulent of political environments, they hold tight to their principles.

By Molly Bennett

ICBA’s congressional relations team is at the sharp end of the association’s mission to create an environment where community banks flourish. Its lobbyists, based in Washington, D.C., navigate the wilds of Capitol Hill to advocate for community banks and further ICBA’s legislative agenda.

Two additions boosted the team this year: Amy Forester Roberti and Steve Keen, who joined in February and June, respectively, as vice presidents, congressional relations. They bring a wealth of lobbying experience and an enthusiasm for the community banking cause—as well as an ability to roll with the punches.

To an outsider, D.C. looks like a pretty interesting place at the moment, with established norms being turned on their heads and sometimes-contradictory messages par for the course. But to a lobbyist, it’s all in a day’s work.

“Every Congress is different,” says Roberti. “The players are constantly changing, and the political environment is constantly changing, so you are always adapting to those different elements. Your principles stay the same, and your methods are consistent, and you stick to that and everything else changes around you.”

Keen concurs. “For us to be successful, we have to operate in all sorts of different environments,” he says. “I’ve worked in Republican majorities and Democratic majorities, and in Republican administrations and Democratic administrations. And everyone has a different strategy.”

Insider knowledge
Keen’s career to date gives him some insight into the current occupant of the White House. “For me personally, I spent a lot of time at the Heritage Foundation, and President Trump has hired a lot of staffers from there. So I have sort of a personal insight into it, because of some of the connections that I have. In a previous job, I had the opportunity to go to the White House to meet President Trump and Vice President Pence and work with them. So while it’s different, I think it has some opportunities and some challenges.”

“A lot of what [I] worked on was access-to-capital issues—small-business lending. So it was a natural fit to come to ICBA, where community banks are really the engine of that.”
—Steve Keen,

In addition to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, Keen worked for lawmakers including Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Penn.), the late Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio)and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). His first job as a lobbyist was with the National Federation of Independent Businesses, a trade association for small businesses.

“A lot of what we worked on was access-to-capital issues—small-business lending,” Keen says. “So it was a natural fit to come to ICBA, where community banks are really the engine of that. ICBA has an excellent reputation, and it was just a natural fit.” Since he joined, Keen has been working on regulatory reform, some tax and, appropriately, small-business issues.

Financial services via insurance
ICBA was a natural fit for Roberti, too. After interning for her hometown congressman, Rep. Tim Holden (D-Penn.), during her junior year at Penn State, she “kind of fell in love with D.C., so I moved down here about four days after I graduated.” She became a registered lobbyist in 2007, working for insurance giant Liberty Mutual. In 2014, she took a policy position at the Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers, but lobbying soon called her back, this time in a different industry.

“ICBA has a great reputation in town and on the Hill,” says Roberti. “It’s the premier trade association for community banks. You feel good about lobbying for community banks and supporting their mission, because they’re the boots on the ground for their community and support local businesses and consumers.”

She remains hopeful about the Trump administration’s receptiveness to regulatory relief efforts. “This administration definitely seemed more interested in finding some kind of regulatory relief for community banks, and the opportunities seemed to be greater given the makeup of Congress and the administration,” she says.

Roberti is currently working on flood insurance reauthorization, regulatory reform and, to a lesser extent, military banking issues. “This team is great; it works together pretty cohesively,” she says. “I’m able to find someone in the office who has a deep background in any issue I need to work on.”

Boots on the ground
While policy experience and an in-depth knowledge of the machinations of Washington go a long way to helping create positive change for community banks, Roberti and Keen agree that the most powerful weapons in ICBA’s arsenal are community bankers themselves.

“As lobbyists, we’re really just the mouthpiece for community banks here in Washington. We’re here, but we’re always telling their stories.”
—Amy Forester Roberti,

“Community banks are their own best messengers,” says Keen, “and the more we can work with them to have them tell their stories and their experiences, whether it be regulation or taxation or whatever, they’re the ones that are in these states and districts. They’re the constituents of their senators and congressmen. That’s a significantly better messenger than a lobbyist in D.C.”

Roberti encourages community bankers to put in the hours with legislators any time they are home in their districts, whether on the weekend or during a congressional recess. “Talking with them when they’re in public forums or inviting them to your bank to visit with you and your employees is huge,” she says. “They love to do that, because you’re their constituents. They get to know you personally, and then if you keep in touch with them, they’ll know you’re available as a resource.”

Roberti also emphasizes that lobbyists are just a mouthpiece for community banks in Washington. “We’re here, but we’re always telling their stories,” she says. “A member of Congress doesn’t do anything for us because of who we are. They do what they do for ICBA because of community banks in their districts and in their states, so their stories are the most powerful tool that we have.”

Molly Bennett is executive editor of Independent Banker.