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Looking To Be Bold? Be Heard? Then Be-gin By Speaking Up

In the months leading up to CUNA's Governmental Affairs Conference this week in Washington, the trade group promoted attendance with the slogan, "Be Bold. Be Heard. Be There." It might need to try, "Be-gin. Be Civil. Be Done." when it comes time to turning on the audience microphones.

It was just a short 10 years ago that a near-death experience and a common, external enemy had helped turn GAC from a "might attend" into a "must attend." Suddenly 4,000-plus CU folk were filling planes, trains and automobiles and Hiking the Hill with "one voice." A recession and a potential invoice from NCUA that will wipe out many credit unions' 09 earnings will mean fewer coach seats and mileage reimbursement requests, but I wouldn't look for it to be quieter meeting as a result. And that's the way it should be.

In addition to the big names from the Hill, GAC is now the place where entertainers and the Beltway Pundits come to pick up a check. This would be a good year for them to stay home, because credit unions need to have three days of discussion among themselves over how to best address some mighty big problems.

Not since FEMA waded into the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita has there been so much discussion related to a TARP. In this case, that's Treasury's Troubled Asset Relief Program, and credit unions are pretty strongly divided between seeking protection beneath the TARP or running as far away from it as possible. That conversation is all likely to be moot, as it appears a self-funded, NCUA plan with the feds serving only as a potential backstop seems to be the latest plan. But there are some important players holding some pretty large invoices who may not agree to pay their part of the tab.

I once heard it observed that a credit union board of directors is a body that will sign off on a $5-million DP conversion after 15 minutes of discussion, and then spend two hours debating a new office copier. So often it seems the larger the issue the smaller the debate, perhaps because the sheer size of what's at stake seems too overwhelming to tackle when you're already so busy. It's just easier and faster to get our minds around smaller things, and thus we spend what time we have on the little stuff. Sometime later down the road, whether we do so as a civilization or a cooperative financial institution or as an individual, we look back over our shoulder and are often left wondering how it is we ever allowed such a large mistake to take place. "Things just took on a life of their own," someone will say.

This week in Washington it's time to hang the cooperative hat on the hat rack and stop any big "things" from coming to life without good, solid talkin.' It's time to argue and debate what should be done about those corporate credit unions, especially U.S. Central, that are ailing financially (and let's be clear, not all are). It's time to stop preaching to Congress about credit union democracy and start practicing it in all its not-so-pretty forms.

The country's new president is fond of making comparisons to Abraham Lincoln, whose sage observations included, "a house divided against itself cannot stand." True enough. But before the House of Credit Unions can decide where it stands, every room, attic and basement in that house need to be heard from.

Whether something like TARP is a TRAP or not, there is a pretty good argument being made that once you throw away 100 years of credit union pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, never-take-a-dime-of-government-money, lead-by-example philosophy, it can never be fished out of the trash. Say hello to the TARP, and say goodbye to any legitimate claim to the tax exemption, those folks add.

Ridiculous, the other side of the House yells back through the wall. What credit unions are talking about is a fraction of what the banks have asked for and received, and the tax exemption is based upon the not-for-profit structure of CUs.

If you don't believe the House stands that divided, then make sure to turn to page 28 in this issue, where you'll find state leagues responding to a question posed by Credit Union Journal over how accepting federal help effects perceptions. You will find good, solid, articulate support for both sides; make sure to not just read your state's answer.

Credit Union Journal is proud that more than any other newsweekly we have led the way on these tough issues. Credit unions will have a right to be proud in the Washington Convention Center if they don't shy from the tough questions this week, such as who is responsible for this mess in the first place? Corporates' management? All CUs? The trade groups? No one?

This is the 100th anniversary of credit unions, and if there are to be future GACs it will demand that "Be Bold. Be Heard. Be There" be more than just a slogan.

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann@cujournal.com.

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