Now is the Time to Add Your Voice in Support of Our Industry

Last fall, bankers from all across Wisconsin (and the nation) expended a lot of time and effort to help get pro-banking candidates elected to office. The fruits of those labors stunned all the pundits in November. Now we can all sit back, relax, and watch as regulations get rolled back and meaningful tax reform becomes a reality. Right?

Wrong. The work has just begun, and the need for banker involvement has never been greater. Wisconsin bankers must be consistent and vocal with their grassroots advocacy efforts so elected officials hear our perspective on the issues that matter most to our industry.

Why Now?

The political climate in Madison and Washington, D.C. is ripe for pro-banking action, but it will take dedication and steady communication from individual bankers in order to see traction on priority items. "Regardless of the election outcome, the banking industry should not be complacent and believe all of our issues will be addressed," said James Ballentine, executive vice president of congressional relations and political affairs for the American Bankers Association (ABA). "If there was ever a time for the industry to show up in force and advocate, it is now." 

While many items on the industry's agenda—regulatory relief, for example—seem clear and common-sense to bankers, it's easy for legislators to get sidetracked with all of the demands for their attention. "There are thousands of lobbyists representing multitudes of industries in Washington, from health care to manufacturing, and all of these industries compete for the attention of Congress." said Paul Merski, group executive vice president – congressional relations and strategy with the Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA). "That is why it is important for community bankers to make sure their voices are heard." 

One reason for the urgency is political timing; many members of Congress will shift their focus to their re-election campaigns early next year. "We must use this 2017 window of opportunity to advance the banking industry's legislative and regulatory priorities," said Ballentine. "We do not have the luxury of assuming that Congress or the Administration will place us at the top of the agenda. As an industry we have to speak louder and more effectively than ever to have our voice heard and our agenda advanced."

The largest part of that industry agenda is to achieve relief from the onslaught of regulations heaped upon the industry over the past two decades, but particularly since the recession. The political winds have shifted and the door is open to a meaningful reprieve, but it won't happen automatically. "The new 115th Congress offers a tremendous opportunity to advance much-needed community bank regulatory relief," said Merski. "Now is the perfect time for community bankers to press reforms to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau rules, complex capital rules, and the overly burdensome exam environment." Regulatory relief isn't likely to happen overnight, but circumstances in Washington make now the perfect time to start swinging the pendulum the other way. "Now more than ever the opportunity exists to begin scaling back the onerous burden of so many regulations that have taken hold over decades," said Merski. "The current regulatory burden didn't happen overnight and it will take a persistent and united effort by community bankers to hold lawmakers' feet to the fire to roll back this burden."

Regulatory relief is also another reason for the urgency this session; the crushing weight of today's regulatory burden is not only suppressing growth at many institutions, it's a driving factor in the shrinking number of banks. "We need to make sure that members of Congress know that over-regulation can stifle a bank's ability to serve their customers and community," said Ballentine. "As the number of regulations grows, the number of banks continues to decline. That is not a coincidence."

What Can I Do?

So, what can you do to help WBA's advocacy efforts on behalf of the industry succeed? In two words: Get Involved. Below are five actions you can take this year to promote our industry to elected officials in Madison and Washington, D.C.:

1)    Learn about the issues: 
WBA's website and various electronic publications like The Pundit provide a wealth of information about advocacy topics relevant to banking; make use of that information and learn about the issues. "It's important for bankers to understand the legislative issues affecting the industry today, not just for advocacy purposes but also because these laws impact day-to-day operations at their institution," said WBA President and CEO Rose Oswald Poels. "The Association provides as much timely information as we can to our members, and we're always available to answer questions as well."

Understanding the specific rule and legislation you want to change is important, because you'll need to explain the situation to your elected official. "Bankers need to be very specific with members of Congress about how a particular rule or regulation has impacted their ability to make small business or mortgage loans to customers," said Ballentine. "Ensuring that members of Congress make the connection between rules and impact on customers—their constituents—will bring the necessary attention to our issues."

2)    Attend WBA advocacy events:
WBA is hosts and/or organizes several advocacy-related events throughout the year, including trips to Washington, D.C. and the annual Capitol Day in Madison. Participating in one or more of these events is an excellent way to forge or deepen your relationship with your representatives. "Community bankers should always develop and foster a relationship with their members of Congress and communicate with them often, both in the State and by visiting Washington, D.C. to lobby," said Merski. "One stroke of the pen in Washington can make or break a community bank's ability to best serve their customers." 

WBA group events prevent bankers from needing to go it alone when they meet with elected officials. "Associations like the Wisconsin Bankers Association do an outstanding job of bringing bankers to Washington to speak directly to members of Congress," said Ballentine. "If traveling to D.C. is not for you, work with your state association to arrange a visit with your elected official while they are home." 

If bankers are nervous about visiting with their representatives in person (or travel to Madison isn't feasible), they can use WBA's advocacy tool, Vocus, to contact elected officials directly via email. "Vocus is an online tool that allows bankers to find their representatives based on their home address and quickly send them emails about important issues," said Mike Semmann, WBA executive vice president – chief operations officer. "It's the fastest way to respond when WBA puts out a grassroots alert on a critical topic." 

3)    Contact your representatives: 
Contacting your representatives directly is one of the most powerful and effective ways you can make yourself heard. Keeping the conversation focused will give you the biggest impact. "Be specific," Ballentine advised. "Don't talk about your bank's profit or loss. Talk about your customers. Members of Congress have a number of issues that are presented to them every day. When you meet or speak with them be able to point to a specific rule or regulation that is slowing the process or preventing you from serving the needs of a customer."

When speaking with your representative, remember to talk to them person-to-person, rather than simply reading a pre-written statement. "The most effective lobbying a community banker can do is to be genuine when contacting their representatives," said Merski. "It is best to provide a specific example from the bank of how a particular regulation has negatively impacted your ability to best serve your customers' needs. Lawmakers like to focus on local economic growth and job creation. Therefore, bankers should explain how they are supplying the credit needs of their communities to create jobs and economic activity and how over-burdensome regulations divert time and resources away from lending."

When you call a legislator's office, the staffer will record your comments and stance on particular issues. Lawmakers often consider the tallies before voting on those issues. "If you set up a meeting with an elected official, don't be disappointed if you end up speaking with a member of their staff. It's their job to listen to what you have to say and make sure the official understands your position," Semmann explained. 


4)    Contribute: 
Your monetary support of pro-banking candidates through either of WBA's political action funds goes a long way toward helping our industry in the advocacy arena by getting candidates elected who will listen to our side of the story. "It is also important to contribute to the political action committees supporting community bank-friendly candidates," said Merski. Campaign contributions are important for two reasons, as Daryll Lund, WBA executive vice president and chief of staff, explained: "Contributing to a pro-banking candidate's campaign directly or through one of WBA's political action funds not only shows that candidate concrete support from our industry, it also helps bank-friendly candidates get—or stay—in office."

5)    Speak up: 
Finally, spread the word about political involvement to your staff, directors and customers. Let them know how to make their voices heard and why it's important for them to speak up. "Individual bankers can magnify the power of their political action by telling their peers about it," said Oswald Poels. "One banker speaking up certainly has an impact, but a hundred has exponentially more. Encourage your peers to get involved as well, and the entire industry will benefit."

Teamwork = Results
Bankers' grassroots efforts are an essential component of successful lobbying. Just as a bank industry lobbyist! 

"Getting Congress to draft up legislation is only part of the battle. It is critical that the grassroots community bank reinforcements weigh in with their lawmakers to help push the legislation over the finish line. It is vital that the grassroots and inside-the-beltway efforts work in unison to get members of Congress to act."
-    Paul Merski, group executive vice president - congressional relations and strategy, ICBA

"There is absolutely nothing better than having the presence of bankers from Wisconsin and other states echoing what I am conveying to a member of Congress or having me echo what the banker is telling their elected official. I cannot do my job effectively without a strong grassroots network of bankers."
-    James Ballentine, executive vice president of congressional relations and political affairs, ABA

"WBA and the industry in general is well-respecting in the Capitol. With all the issues your legislators have to deal with on a daily basis, hearing our story directly from a constituent can cut through the fog and have a lasting impact on your senator or representative."
-    John Turke, director of government relations, WBA