By Charlotte BirchYears ago—before the financial crisis and Dodd-Frank Act, and when the World Wide Web had just been born—bankers were so fed up with regulatory excesses that ABA and the state bankers associations launched an industry-wide grassroots campaign to “Cut the Red Tape.”
The campaign—which, among other things, featured bankers photographed next to a stack of all bank rules that applied to their institutions—proved fruitful. The result of three years’ work was 1994’s Riegle Community Development and Regulatory Improvement Act, which included more than 50 measures intended to trim some of what time had added to banks’ compliance waistline.
Fast forward two decades, and bankers are taking that tactic and doing it one better. They are inviting members of Congress to walk in their shoes for a day—or maybe just an hour or two—and to see first-hand how policies set in Washington or a state capital are playing in the field.
Bankers like Mike Mauldin, president and CEO of First Financial Bank in Hereford, Texas, and William Ware, vice president of Amarillo National Bank, who cohosted a meeting with Republican Rep. Mac Thornberry in August. The meeting was scheduled as part of ABA’s Take Your Lawmaker to Work Week—officially set for Sept. 21-25, though bankers were encouraged to schedule a bank visit any time their elected representatives were home and available.
The purpose of the week—and of bank visits throughout the year—is to help keep banking’s legislative priorities top-of-mind in Washington and to demonstrate the important role banks play in their hometowns.
“Lawmakers make laws, not loans,” notes James Ballentine, ABA’s EVP of congressional relations. “Bank employees are the experts at banking. They need to share that expertise so lawmakers cast informed votes on banking issues.”
“Hosting a bank visit is a grassroots best practice,” adds Erin Scheithe, ABA’s VP for grassroots programs.
“Some bankers and state association have done this before, but we wanted to formalize the program and spread the practice far and wide.”
To help novices take the first step, Scheithe offers resources like a sample invitation letter, the name of the lawmaker’s scheduler, an event checklist, frequently asked questions (example: “Are we allowed to provide lunch?”), sample tweets and a video with tips on planning a successful visit.
The video suggests bankers take their lawmakers on a tour of their bank, introducing them to the employees who open accounts, make mortgage loans or run the back office. “These are the people who don’t come to Washington for fly-ins but who can share personal observations that are very persuasive,” Scheithe notes.
Another persuasive tool to use during a visit is an “impact statement.” Jerry Ernst, president and CEO of Horizon Community Bank in Lake Havasu City, Ariz., developed one—a version of which is available on ABA’s grassroots platform (aba.com/SpeakUp)—in preparation for an event he hosted earlier this year with GOP Rep. Paul Gosar. The statement is patterned after one Arizona Bankers Association does for the state’s banking industry and outlines his bank’s number of employees, taxes paid, loans and customer accounts as well as the time and money spent on philanthropic activities. He has also shared it with his employees and with House Financial Services Committee member Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat who represents the Phoenix area.
“We’re going to keep our impact statement up-to-date as a communications tool for policymakers and employees so than can see how they’re part of something bigger,” said Ernst, a member of ABA’s Banker and Advocacy Grassroots Committee, which is spearheading the lawmakers-at-work initiative.
Mauldin and Ware took an inclusive approach, inviting other bankers from Thornberry’s district to a lunch with the congressman that followed his meeting with Amarillo National Bank’s frontline staff. It was clear that both Thornberry and the bank employees found the meeting to be productive.
“The frontline people could see that it made a difference,” said Mauldin, who also serves on ABA’s Bankers and Advocacy Grassroots Committee. “As informed as Rep. Thornberry is, hearing first-hand accounts from the staff helped bring it all home.” In turn, Thornberry advised the bankers to ensure other lawmakers—including those less inclined to support banks—had a similar opportunity to visit with bank employees and hear their concerns.
ABA’s program, in fact, has a goal of eventually reaching every member of Congress. And with nothing but upside—Ernst notes even the customers were impressed to see an elected official visiting the bank—it’s easy to imagine that goal being reached.