Never Again? For The Sake Of Credit Unions, Let’s Hope Not

After the long, difficult build up, the news came with sudden, short notice. President Clinton would be signing the Credit Union Membership Act on a Friday, just days away.

The news had come as a surprise to everyone, including the trade groups, which were now busy dealing with all the politics involved in selecting for the limited number of slots available from among the cast of thousands who believed they deserved to be in the Oval Office for the signing ceremony.

In this issue Credit Union Journal publishes a very special edition to commemorate the 10th anniversary of President Clinton’s signature on that piece of landmark legislation. Much of the world gave little notice. Half a world away a U.S. embassy was being bombed in Africa. In town, Bill Richardson was being confirmed as the new Secretary of Energy. But for the credit union world, Aug. 7, 1998 was what July 20, 1969 was to NASA or what Nov. 9, 1989 was to the East Germans.

As part of this issue we asked voices from around the credit union community to share with us their recollections and special memories from 1990, when banks in North Carolina filed suit against NCUA (a lawsuit that would become better known as the “AT&T Family” case), to August 1998, when all the work and worries and lawsuits and lobbying dollars and personal visits and late nights culminated in a West Wing ceremony. You will find those special stories beginning on page 33.

The banking industry has its own perspective on this period, and while their views aren’t included in this issue it seems unlikely the American Bankers Association will be breaking out the bubbly to mark the anniversary. And yet the banks did score some victories. A cap on member business lending that credit unions are now seeking relief from with the Credit Union Regulatory Improvement Act (CURIA). And another little-noted provision slipped in by a Washington law firm that specialized in turning mutual savings banks into commercial banks and which had watched its gravy boat begin to run dry: language that changed what it took to convert to a bank from a majority of “members” to a majority of “voters.” It was a small change that would go on to have great implications for credit unions in the decade to follow, as Credit Union Journal has reported extensively.

The final two years of that battle, 1997 and 1998, have been lamented by some as a low point for credit unions, and even in this issue some people opine, “Never again.” Here’s hoping they’re wrong. Again and again. Just as Thomas Jefferson had written “God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion”–taking rebellion to mean the citizens were intimately involved in government–so, too, could CUs regularly use the kind of challenge that forces a reexamination of core values and a re-engagement with their reason for being.

For credit unions, 1997 and 1998 were their own brief shining Camelot; it can be hard to convey to those who weren’t around at that time the excitement, the energy, the emotion of that period, although you will get a strong sense of it in this issue. Credit unions learned to effectively tell their story, a skill that seems to have faded as quickly as it rose. Credit unions developed creative and effective ad campaigns on shoestring budgets. “Members” learned they weren’t customers and what that meant and why it mattered.

CUs got in 1998 what they had fought for, expanded FOMs, and yet ironically have in the process abandoned much of what got them there in the first place.

In reviewing issues of the Journal from ’97 and ’98 I could fill this space and much more with the delicious, the malicious and the judicious from that time. Congressmen unable to push open their front doors at home because of the mountain of mail that had been shoved through the slot. A bank in Texas headlining a full page newspaper ad, “Are Your Credit Union Deposits Insured by The FDIC? No Way!” Justice Clarence Thomas authoring the Supreme Court decision against credit unions, after not having asked a single question (as is his custom) during arguments.

My own favorite memory goes back to that White House signing ceremony. I had gotten through White House security with a faxed letter to the press office and a driver’s license at the gate, and the Journal’s Washington Bureau Chief, Ed Roberts, and I soon found ourselves standing in a relatively empty White House Press Room. An intern finally led us out to the Rose Garden, and due to a one rep per publication policy, I conceded the opportunity to witness the signing to Ed, who shot the only photos taken by credit unions that day of the signing, with CU dignitaries lined up behind the president. Later, we stood again in the Rose Garden while President Clinton departed from remarks on another bill to speak of the CU legislation. When he concluded, we wandered back into the press room, and with no one ever asking us to leave, finally let ourselves out of the White House. Later in the day there was a reception at the offices of the PR firm Hill & Knowlton in the Watergate building that overlooked the apartment of a certain intern at the White House who was getting a lot more media coverage than the credit union legislation ever would.

It’s been 10 years now, and using Mr. Jefferson’s schedule, before another decade passes credit unions will need to stand up and rebel once more. Here’s hoping he’s right.

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann@cujournal.com. (c) 2008 The Credit Union Journal and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved. http://www.cujournal.com http://www.sourcemedia.com