Earlier this month Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), chairman of the powerful House committee that oversees the financial services industry, was facing a tough primary. After ten terms in Washington, he was being challenged by another conservative Republican. Ads from the Campaign for Primary Accountability, an unconventional super PAC hellbent on throwing the bums in Congress out, were hitting him hard over an ethics investigation into his alleged insider trading on nonpublic information he'd picked up on the job.
Where Bachus saw danger, the credit union industry, which is itself in the midst of a fierce battle with community banks over federal regulations for the small-lending industry, saw an opportunity to pick up political capital. In Bachus' moment of need, the Credit Union Legislative Action Council -- the lobby's PAC of choice -- spent $27,700 in an independent expenditure on radio ads supporting Bachus.
It's the kind of campaign help tendered by a overseen industry to an overseeing lawmaker that barely raises an eyebrow in Washington these days. What makes it slightly more unusual, however, is the fact that one of the lobbyists publicly bragged about it.
In a video recorded this week at an industry conference by Lee Fang of the Republic Report, a new investigative outlet also home to Jack Abramoff, Richard Gose, the senior vice president for government affairs at the Credit Union National Association, can be heard explaining just how big a deal that help was:
"The chairman of the financial service committee had a tough race -- a group, anti-incumbent group dropped a lot of money in right at the end of his primary, and he was sitting there, he needed some help," Gose says, "so we stepped up to the plate, and tried to help. And he was luckily successful and will be here with us I think and will be meeting and talking with many of you."
He also says that Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), elected earlier this year with the industry's help, went to work for them by cosponsoring a bill almost immediately: “After she got sworn in, she went to the desk of the House and asked to be put on the business lending bill."
Bonamici spokesman Russ Kelley said the industry's support didn't have anything to do with it. "Congresswoman Bonamici’s decisions are based on what is right for the constituents in Oregon’s First District, not contributions. She has a longstanding commitment to expanding access to capital so that small businesses can grow and thrive."
But the credit unions clearly believed they accomplished their goals in supporting Bachus and Bonamici. Or, as Gose put it in the video: "It helps to have friends."
Critics like the Campaign for Primary Accountability say breezy language about "stepping up to the plate" and gaining access to Congressional leadership is exactly what they were trying to put a stop to with their involvement in Bachus' primary.
"This is a shocking and blatant example of why the Campaign for Primary Accountability exists," said spokesman Curtis Ellis. "Inside-the-beltway lobbyists shower money on the powerful entrenched incumbents they rely on for legislative favors, and do everything they can to strangle challengers in the crib."
To the credit union lobby, however, Gose's comments are far more innocuous, and representative only of the way things work in Washington: reliable incumbents can rely on help during campaign season.
"In elections, credit unions choose to support their friends," said Pat Keefe, vice president for communications at CUNA. He noted that CUNA had not coordinated with Bachus before deciding to run the ads. "We do that based on our judgment that we can make a difference in the election. We do these things fully in accordance with the law and rules governing elections. ... Obviously, he made these remarks publicly and without hesitation, with the aim of being completely transparent to the credit union movement."
Credit union professionals, in any event, didn't have a chance to talk to Bachus in person this week: he's home sick.
"The congressman actually did not speak at that event," spokesman Tim Johnson said. "He's actually recovering from minor surgery in Birmingham."