Going to bat for credit unions

Going to bat for credit unions
© Greg Nash

Credit unions have been an integral part of Carrie Hunt’s life since she was a little girl. Hunt leads the government relations arm of the National Association of Federally Insured Credit Unions (NAFCU), whose member financial firms serve more than 110 million Americans. 

She’s been at NAFCU for more than 13 years, but her first experience with credit unions came at age 8 through her parents, two National Security Administration employees who were members of Tower Federal, a union for Defense Department employees and contractors.

Hunt told The Hill in a recent interview that her first credit union exposure instilled “a very basic understanding of belonging to something,” even if it was located on a secret government facility.

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“Since for them it was their primary financial institution, really that’s what I learned anew, and I think we always go back to, sometimes, the things that we know first,” Hunt said. “It’s kind of in my DNA.”

She joined the NAFCU as a regulatory attorney and was named the group’s executive vice president of government affairs and general counsel in 2015.

Recently, she has spearheaded the NAFCU’s lobbying to roll back strict post-financial crisis regulations credit union chiefs say hinder their growth and punish them for a meltdown they didn’t cause. 

“I truly do think credit unions provide the best financial services for the American consumer, and using my skills and abilities as an attorney and as a lobbyist to try to create the best environment for credit unions to do more is what gets me excited,” Hunt said.

Born and raised in Annapolis, Md., Hunt said she had long been interested in law and regulation. She worked for the University of Maryland student legal aid office as an undergraduate while she prepared for law school and took a job with the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the nonpartisan office that conducts policy and legal analysis for lawmakers. 

“I knew I wanted to wait a few years before going to law school to get some
experience, and CRS is where I first was really exposed to how Capitol Hill works,” she said.

Hunt attended law school at the College of William and Mary and took the bar exam in Virginia and Massachusetts upon graduating. She decided to move north to take a job with a Democratic state senator from the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, far from the political power in Boston.

“I went to law school and thought I’d never get back to politics, but realized that I loved being a lawyer but didn’t love litigation and didn’t want to go that route,” Hunt said. “So I decided to get back into policy.”

Hunt served as a the legal counsel to state Sen. Andrea Nuciforo Jr., who was chairman of the Massachusetts legislature’s Joint Committee on Banks and Banking. She helped Nuciforo craft appropriations bills and an overhaul of the state banking code, delving deeper into financial services.

Hunt’s stint in Boston also exposed her to navigating fiery political debates and pushing for a place at the table among power players.

“He liked it that I had some D.C. experience, but he liked that I was an outsider,” Hunt said. “Boston politics are very, very unique, and he being from the Berkshires was someone of an outsider himself, and I kind of got my start that way.”

After Hunt’s now-husband moved to Washington to take a job with the Justice Department, she set her sights back on D.C., eventually joining the NAFCU.

“There’s something to be said for belonging to something, and I do think there’s something to be said about a democratically controlled institution,” she said.

NAFCU and the Credit Union National Association are the two major lobbying groups representing credit unions in Washington. While banks have struggled to land significant victories in rolling back Dodd-Frank Act regulations, credit unions have had some key successes.

Credit union advocates this year successfully lobbied against a provision in a House spending bill that would have placed the National Credit Union Administration’s budget under congressional control. Credit unions said they prized the close relationship they’ve fostered with the independent regulator and didn’t want lawmakers to interfere with it.

Credit unions scored an exemption for their payday loan alternatives in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) pending rule on small-dollar lending, released earlier this year. 

NAFCU was also among the groups who successfully lobbied for the repeal of the CFPB rule on forced arbitration. It also pushed the bureau to raise the threshold at which credit unions would have to comply with the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act.

Hunt said she’s focused on landing consumer data privacy protections, to prevent credit unions from dealing with the aftermath of hacks, and helping credit unions adapt to the rise of financial technology companies.

“We’re seeing other different players enter the market who don’t necessarily have the regulatory restrictions credit unions do,” Hunt said. “Credit unions are able to partner with [financial technology companies], but those entities also need to be regulated.” 

Hunt said she’s also pushing for changes at the CFPB that would force the agency “to take a big breath and focus on previously unregulated bad actors and really fulfill what Congress intended it to do.” 

NAFCU has long pushed the CFPB to exempt credit unions from regulations using an authority given to the bureau under Dodd-Frank.

“The credit union industry is doing well, but it’s not because of regulation, it’s in spite of it,” Hunt said. “Credit unions have continued to put their head down and do what they did best, had to deal with all this noise of changing all the paperwork and rules on mortgages.

“But none of that stuff changed what credit unions were doing from their core business model.”