Life Among Men and Not Among Angels

We can apply the lessons of ‘Lincoln’ to CUs’ legislative battles.

May 13, 2013

Steven Spielberg’s new film “Lincoln” opened this fall to wide acclaim.

It’s based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lincoln biography “Team of Rivals,” which examines the 16th president’s political genius at knitting together a cabinet that included his Republican presidential rivals, and his skill persuading egos to function in the nation’s interests regardless of personal preferences and grudges.
 
The movie deals with the cynical and unpleasant maneuvers necessary to obtain Congressional approval of the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery in the U.S. 
 
When the film opened, the U.S. was approaching the fiscal cliff that threatened to throw the economy back into a recession. Pundits cited the film as an example of how messy the legislative process can be in a vibrant democracy based on the highest ideals.  
 
We can apply the lessons of “Lincoln” and the 13th Amendment debate to credit unions’ legislative agenda and recent battles over issues such as debit card interchange fees, ATM signage, and member business lending. 
 
Those of us not dealing daily with Congress or state legislatures can’t grasp the push and pull of the often glacial and always frustrating process of introducing a credit union bill, let alone passing it.  
 
When do we draw a line in the sand? 
 
When do we compromise? 
 
When President Clinton signed into law the Credit Union Membership Access Act (H.R. 1151) 15 years ago, the final bill was a battle of intense negotiations. 
 
The late historian Shelby Foote once said the Civil War occurred because we lost the ability to do what we had always done best—compromise, albeit messily, and not always on the side of angels.
 
After more than 70 years of compromise, the nation reached a point when further compromise over slavery and preservation of the union was impossible.
 
The nation’s compromises over slavery began with the Constitution in 1787 and continued with westward ex-pansion. But the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857 ruled that the federal government had no power to regulate slavery in the territories, the Constitution didn’t protect free and slave people of African descent, and they weren’t U.S. citizens. 
 
So the north and south drew a line in the sand, and we fought a war. Sometimes you can’t compromise anymore. You’re forced to listen to what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”
 
Credit unions have our lines in the sand, but we’ve compromised, too. The current cap on member business lending was a final compromise to pass H.R. 1151.
 
Despite the eventual overwhelming floor votes in favor of passage, the act passed the Senate Banking Com-mittee by a single vote. Had we not compromised, credit unions today would look remarkably different. 
 
In his biography of U.S. Grant,“The Man Who Saved the Union,” H.W. Brands also covers the fight over the 13th Amendment—one of the three amendments that became known as the Reconstruction Amendments. 
 
The 14th Amendment granted citizenship to all persons born in the U.S., but it didn’t provide former slaves with the right to vote. This anguished many of the amendment’s supporters. Voting rights, except for women, came subsequently with the 15th Amendment. 
 
Thaddeus Stevens, the radical Republican congressman from Pennsylvania featured prominently in “Lincoln,” also played a major role in passage of the 14th Amendment. Many criticized him viciously for not pushing harder to include voting rights, but he believed the amendment would die if it did.
 
When asked why a passionate man of often uncompromising ideals would accept an imperfect law, Brands quotes Stevens as saying, “Because I live among men and not among angels.”
 
That’s worth remembering as we steel ourselves for the battles to come in the 113th Congress. 
 
Taxation is our line in the sand—and the battle to allow credit unions to thrive and serve working men and women and their families continues.
 
MARK CONDON is CUNA’s senior vice president, business and consumer publishing. Contact him at 608-231-4078.