WASHINGTON—Jim Nussle, the former Iowa congressman who is now CUNA’s new CEO, said he is working to provide the “bold leadership” the association’s board stressed it was seeking when it hired him, is getting up to speed on both internal and external CU system challenges, and indicated he is open-minded about working with traditional enemies of credit unions when there are areas of common interest on Capitol Hill.
In an interview with CUToday.info, Nussle, who also previously led the Office of Management and Budget and who is in just his third week at CUNA, said that while he is new to the job, he has a strong familiarity with credit unions.
“I was on the receiving end of CUNA, Iowa league and credit union advocacy for many years, and over the years I saw their very effective grassroots advocacy,” said Nussle, a Republican who served in the House from 1991-2007. “I always viewed credit unions as the preeminent grassroots organization. Other organizations would always compare themselves to these ‘credit union guys,’ who really got a lot of boots on the ground.”
Nussle was in Congress when more CU boots were on the ground than at any other time, during the 1997-98 fight for the Credit Union Membership Access Act. He did not sign-on as a co-sponsor of that historic legislation, but did vote for the bill, which passed in a landslide.
CUNA reported it considered more than 100 candidates to succeed Bill Cheney as the association president before selecting Nussle. Nussle said he believes he brings a skill set that adds value to the position, and is the second former congressman to helm the organization following Dan Mica. But he said he also has a strong personal alignment with the philosophy of credit unions, having belonged to a fraternal organization that had a similar philosophy.
In terms of what the CUNA board said it expects from him, Nussle said, “The board said they were seeking bold leadership, and time and time again that was emphasized. In recent months there has been a new strategic plan for CUNA and they want me to implement that plan and continually improve it. But job number one, and the reason CUNA was formed, is still the number-one value proposition, and that’s advocacy.
“There is no question that in a generic sense people who have been inside the Capitol have a unique perspective on what works in advocacy,” Nussle continued. “They have been on the receiving end and while it’s not the be-all, end-all, they have seen the good and the bad and the ugly of what is effective.”
Both Ends of Pennsylvania Avenue
Nussle noted he has worked both ends of Capitol Hill, in Congress and with the George W. Bush Administration, respectively, and understands the kinds of advocacy that work at each. In addition, after leaving Congress having lost both his seat and a bid for the Iowa governorship and then serving as director of the OMB, Nussle formed his own consulting company, where he did work for the ethanol industry, a favorite cause in Iowa. That experience, he said, also gave him insights into advocating for a particular cause.
Credit unions have not had a significant victory in Congress in more than a decade, although to be fair nor have many other interest groups. But the constant focus on advocacy and fundraising by CUs and state and national associations have left many feeling burned-out about the process, a situation one CUToday.info reader expressed in a letter to CUToday.info’s Mailbag (for the response, click here). Nussle said he understands the frustration and burnout.
“Those are fair points,” he said. “Our founding fathers created this system to prevent exactly this, one issue, one person, one interest group controlling the Congress—and they were successful! But we still have majority rule and if the majority gets involved or angry enough, things can still be gotten done. There has not been a lot of leadership from either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, and I’m not sure this next election will really break the logjam.”
Nussle said that while there may be burnout with traditional forms of advocacy, he believes “new approaches” offer some promise. “We do have some common interests and frustrations with community banks, and some common purposes. It won’t be easy. But one thing I have seen work effectively is when opponents and even enemies come together arm in arm and ask policymakers to give them a shot, policymakers will listen. It’s not enough anymore to just say strap on the boots and say let’s go to Capitol Hill.”
Nussle emphasized that any discussions with banking industry interests would need to be carefully thought through, but added, “From a tactical and strategic standpoint, just bashing heads is no more effective today than it was yesterday. I hope that I am the kind of person who can bring people together when they have a common purpose.”
The Internal Challenges To Credit Unions
Credit unions have far greater challenges than advocacy, however, including the growth challenges of small to medium-size CUs, a crushing compliance load, and shrinking numbers. Nussle, who was lead singer in a blues band while at Luther College, said he has already been involved in “good discussions about these internal challenges” and recognizes that the good news of hitting 100-million members is muted by the consolidations that are occurring.
CUNA is also going through a process of self-examination with its governance structure. “We are really just in the initial stages. We’re working through what is most valuable,” said Nussle, adding the organization is conducting a lot of research. “We want to provide the entire system with enough information to decide what the future will be. People are passionate about it.”
Even before officially taking the job, Nussle traveled back to Iowa to be a part of that state’s league annual meeting. And he has also had discussions with his two predecessors in the job. “But it isn’t just Bill (Cheney) and Dan (Mica), there are so many good folks here and in Madison. They have really, really good perspective.”
Nussle said he has yet to decide how he will divide his time between CUNA’s Washington and Madison offices, but has already visited the latter twice.
Three weeks into the CUNA CEO job and Nussle said, “What impresses me about this job is not the big things, it’s the importance of the little things. The relationship between CUNA and its member credit unions is as important as the relationship between those credit unions and their members. I’m most impressed with the relationships credit unions have with those members, the trust members have. I recognize how important that is, especially as it gets scaled. There are 100-million members and nearly 7,000 credit unions, but it is the relationships with those individual members that is most important. That’s what makes us different from companies that have customers. We have to remember what is most important.”
While in Congress in the early 1990s, Nussle rose to some fame for wearing a paper bag over his head in remarks on the House floor protesting the House Bank and what he called “shameful” ethical behavior. The “bank” was closed, and members were encouraged to join credit unions that serve Congress. It’s a moment that many have not forgotten.
“It does stick with you,” he said of the event more than two decades ago. “I closed the House Bank, and that’s not a bad thing to have on your resume. I had the opportunity to close the bank and direct members to credit unions.”
-Frank J. Diekmann