Learning to tell your clients no

Long before this current healthcare debate, I served as a U.S. representative from a south Florida district that was split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans. As regular readers of this column may know, when it came time to vote, I often had to face tough decisions.

Sometimes it was easy; my conscience made the decision for me, and I knew with the deepest conviction how I had to cast my yea or nay.

But other times, I was on the fence, and I had to reconcile the feedback I received at one town hall meeting with a different one elsewhere.

Sometimes, deciding how to vote took some creativity. I recall that once, during my first congressional term, I faced a very difficult vote having to deal with education. Torn between real pros and cons for voting either way, my staff and I opened up a Palm Beach County phonebook and started calling random names and asking for constituents’ opinions. While not exactly what you would call scientifically valid, the feedback was helpful, and ultimately I made what I think was an acceptable decision. The voters thought so, too.

I do not envy the members of today who face similar if not much more challenging votes as they return to the healthcare debate and other issues. In an age of blogging, live streaming town hall meetings and a 24-hour cable and online news cycle, members today face more scrutiny than I did when I served in Congress during 1979 and throughout the 1980s.

Perhaps some of those members will eventually look to a second career on K Street with the hope they will be able to turn to an “easier life” with fewer difficult decisions. My warning to them after 20 years as a lobbyist: You will still face difficult decisions and, in a sense, tough votes. You will also have to learn that sometimes you must tell your new K Street constituents the meaning of the word “no.”

In our credit union world, one of the biggest issues we faced in my tenure was a legislative battle in the late 1990s to overturn a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that limited consumers’ ability to join credit unions.

Early on, as we sought the necessary legislation, I came under pressure from some in our community to get a bill introduced right away; they even had identified a willing sponsor.

I had to tell them no. I felt strongly that it was better strategically to wait until we could introduce the legislation with bipartisan sponsorship. That way, our legislation — which we had to pass urgently over fierce banking industry opposition — would be seen as having wide appeal, not as a divisive measure.

Over this pressure from some within our own constituency, we waited until we had the bipartisan bill we sought, which went on to pass six months later by wide margins in Congress.

In that case, I pushed back, and I will continue do so when necessary through the remainder of my tenure. We now have an activist Congress again, and association members are not always comfortable with the changes being proposed and/or implemented, especially in the corporate community.

Again, I understand where the frustrations are, and sometimes I agree that intervention is needed. But at other times, it all comes down to saying no to the assignment. Leadership, in essence, requires saying no.

Lobbyists cannot simply be hired guns. One cannot simply collect a nice paycheck and do whatever it takes to please clients or constituencies. There is the responsibility to be a professional at all times and to give the right counsel, even if it is likely to make clients upset because it is not what they wanted to hear.

A strong CEO or association head will ultimately earn the respect of his/her members, and they will understand the CEO has the credibility to push back and do what he or she believes is right. They may object, even yell and send you some sharp e-mails, but by and large they will support the leader because he/she is doing what is best.

My advice to members of Congress and fellow colleagues on K Street is much the same during these next few months: Do what is right. By and large, people will support you. Listen and be honest with your constituents and yourself. Make the difficult decisions, difficult as they may be. In the long run, you will be fine, and our country will always — in the end — overcome and flourish.
Mica is the president and chief executive of the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), which represents nearly 8,500 credit unions with 90 million members. He was a Democratic congressman from Florida from 1979-89.