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The Corridors of Power

Street Talk By Greg MacabentaBy Greg Macabenta
SAN FRANCISCO
I was in Washington D.C. all of the last week of November, with two days spent sitting at meetings with the federal decision-makers and regulators who are implementing the biggest rescue operation of the US economy since the Depression, and one day plodding the corridors of the Senate and the House of Representatives with aging veterans who are still hoping to gain benefits in the lameduck session of Congress.
It was an unforgettable lesson in the use of power, as well as the need for the Filipino community in America to learn how to make use of its potentially powerful numbers.
[ad#featuredpost120x600-wht]The meetings with the federal officials were arranged by the Greenlining Coalition, one of the oldest and most potent advocacy groups in the US. It is made up of African-American, Latino and Asian American civil rights leaders, faith-based organizations, minority business associations, community development corporations, health advocates, and minority media outlets. The National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA), of which I am now national chairman, is a member.
The visit to Washington D.C. was intended to deliver the message that the benefits of the $700 billion bailout of Wall Street needed to cascade down – not just trickle down – to Main Street, the consumers, the ordinary homeowners who are losing their job s and their homes in the face of the crisis.
Led by Greenlining General Counsel Bob Gnaizda, who is sometimes referred to as “Bully Bob” by those who have experienced the sting of his reproach, some 20 of us moved from office to office to make the case for minority communities.
The first stop was at the office of Sheila Bair, chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). Greenlining considers her an ally.
Days before the meeting, Bair had stated that some of the federal bailout money should be used to help homeowners avoid foreclosure, a position not necessarily shared by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.
Bair assured our group that she was “still hopeful.”
Next was a meeting at the office of John Reich, Director of the Office of Thrift Supervision and a director of FDIC. Only his deputy director, John Bowman was available. The group asked Bowman to urge Reich to support Bair’s position. He gave the usual PR response, but Gnaizda insisted on a follow-up to see how the agency would act.
Then came a meeting with James Lockhart, regulator of Fannie Mae (Federal National Mortgage Association) and20Freddie Mac (Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation), two of the major casualties in the mortgage crisis that have needed federal intervention.
The same message given to Bowman was delivered to Lockhart. “You shouldn’t just bail out the banks. You should bail out the homeowners.”
The next day, the group met with Federal Reserve Vice-Chairman Donald Kohn (Chairman Ben Bernanke was testifying before Congress) and some members of the board. As in the earlier meetings with regulators, Greenlining pressed for greater urgency in extending help to homeowners.
They also pointed out the need to more effectively enforce the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), which mandates that major financial institutions should set aside funds to lend to communities. Greenlining pointed out that minority communities were not getting a fair share of the pie.
In all of these meetings, the high officials dutifully took notes, offered very little by way of counter arguments and constantly reassured the group that everything was being done to help minorities. To this assurance, Gnaizda had a predictable response. Can we call on you again to see what has been done about the problem?” Invariably, the answer was in the affirmative.
At the Federal Reserve meeting, we were joined by Rep. Barbara Lee, an African American representing Oakland. She snapped: “We’ve been delivering this message for the past eight years and here we are saying it again – which means, not much has been done.” The Fed vice-chair meekly nodded.
Meetings at the offices of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Mike Honda and Rep. Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee followed. I could only join the one at Pelosi’s office, which was with her aides.
I was thoroughly impressed with the way Gnaizda and the members of Greenlining presented their case. Backed by research and ready with statistics, they had obviously been through the same paces before and were no strangers to the officials we were meeting with. It was also obvious that they were regarded with respect.
A week earlier, I had joined the same Greenlining group at a luncheon with the CEO and senior executives of Comerica Bank and an afternoon meeting with the President of Union Bank. The atmosphere was convivial at the Comerica luncheon. The bank has been one o f the most supportive of Greenlining’s advocacy.
The Union Bank meeting was different. Gnaizda bluntly told the chief executive that his bank was not doing enough to comply with the provisions of the CRA. “We are looking forward to a meeting with your CEO,” Gnaizda told him. The bank executive dutifully said he would arrange it.
After two days with Greenlining, I joined Eric Lachica, executive director of the American Coalition for Filipino Veterans (ACFV), in a visit to Capitol Hill. We were with three aging soldiers, one of them a month short of 92 years. We had hoped to meet with Senator Daniel Inouye, a staunch supporter of Filipino veterans, to see what plans he had for the lameduck session of Congress.
As background, because of the economic crisis, the members of both the Senate and the House of Representatives (some of whom lost in the recent elections) have been called to special sessions to pass bailout legislation.
Before the elections, veterans advocates, chief of them a coalition of NaFFAA, ACFV and leading FilAm Democrats and Republicans, had high hopes that S.1315, a bill filed by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Daniel Akaka, that had a provision for benefits for Filipino veterans, could be consolidated with H.R. 6897 in a conference committee. Rep. Bob Filner, chairman of the House Veteran s Affairs Committee, had failed to push S.1315 in the House of Representatives and, in order to save the day for the veterans, filed H.R. 6897 that set aside $198 million for them. Unfortunately, one lone Republican senator, Richard Burr of North Carolina, blocked convening the conference committee and thus left the equity bill hanging.
Lachica, two of the veterans and I (one of the vets decided to leave after we had failed to meet with Sen. Inouye) trudged the corridors of Congress, calling on the offices of Pelosi, Filner and Senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein, but they were all busy at hearings and at marathon sessions over the economic crisis. Clearly, veterans equity had very low priority for them.
Lachica, who has been lobbying Capitol Hill for over a decade, kept a positive attitude. In a letter to ACFV that he showed me, Filner wrote: “I know that many of you were supporters of S.1315 and did not want H.R. 6897 to pass. I agree that this bill in no way provided the full equity that the veterans deserve and the full equity that we all were seeking, but it appeared to have a chance of success. The Filipino veterans are dying, and many of those who are still with us desperately need financial help.
“Indeed, H.R. 6897 passed the House by a vote of 392-23! You may know that we were also successful in getting $198 million in the Consolidated Appropriations bill to pay for H.R. 6897! But at this point, a ‘hold’ was placed on this bill on the Senate side. The end result is that Filipino veterans will get nothing from the 110th Congress.
“We came very close. Although we are all saddened by the turn of events, I promise I will never give up. Equity and recognition for World War II veterans is a moral imperative.”
As Lachica, the two old soldiers and I walked across the marbled corridors of Congress, I realized that we Filipinos in America still have much to learn from minority groups, like the Greenlining Coalition, on the effective use of power. The irony is that we have the potential, considering that three-fourths of the 2.9 million Filipinos in America officially accounted for by the census are US citizens. We just don’t know how to harness that potential. Hopefully, through NaFFAA, we will learn.
(gregmacabenta@hotmail.com)

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