WASHINGTON (3/21/12)--"We're in a relations business when we're in the law making business," Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.) told the audience during a breakout session at the Credit Union National Association's (CUNA) 2012 Governmental Affairs Conference (GAC) in Washington Tuesday.
Jenkins and Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) addressed the importance of establishing relationships with state legislators during a panel discussion entitled "From the State House to Capitol Hill: The Critical Nature of State Advocacy."
"It really is the relationships that make this job what it is," Jenkins said. "I know you would like to think that everyone has access to their lawmakers in the state house or here on Capitol Hill, but it is the ones you know by face and name that are going to be the most valuable to you."
Jenkins told how she developed a relationship with Kansas credit unions when she developed a public-private financial literacy initiative with the Kansas Credit Union Association.
"That relationship has carried over, as you would expect, when I came to Congress," Jenkins said. "I have most of those folks on speed dial. If I have a question these people I worked can give me an honest answer. I won't always agree with them, but I have a healthy working relationship with them, and that's all anyone really wants. The easiest place to start that is at the lowest level, even in your city council," she said.
Perlmutter said it's important to "plant a seed" with lawmakers because they have the power to rewrite laws. He developed his relationship with credit unions while working as an attorney before becoming a public official. In that role he represented credit unions, which helped him understand issues unique to credit unions, such as issues surrounding common bond or public deposits.
"You don't know when that seed is going to germinate," Perlmutter said. "You don't know exactly when something you suggested will come up, but when you focus on public officials, we have the chance to erase what is written and you having to deal within the confines of what is written."
Because of the number of members that credit unions have they have a lot of power with lawmakers, said Perlmutter.
"You have lots of families, lots of consumers, lots of business that are part of your group," he said. "It makes a difference to elected officials know that you have that many people. For me it's probably a majority of my voting population."
Both Jenkins and Perlmutter said credit unions should hold no fear of being too repetitive with their message. If an issue is important to you, "you have to keep pressing," Perlmutter said. Reaching consensus can be difficult, Perlmutter said, noting that legislators "are not going to get a touchdown on every play."
Jenkins said Congress is more polarized than ever. She suggested that the last few election cycles have produced nominees--and ultimately, legislators—on the far left and far right.
"When you look at the body today compared to ten years ago, there just isn't a working majority in the middle," Jenkins said. "It's hard to find that common ground. Until they electorate decides to change it, that just the way it is."