By Arthur D. Postal

Several weeks ago, a public relations firm associated with the life insurance industry alerted the media to a “growing fight among [insurance] agents” over support for legislation that would create an optional federal charter for life insurers.

The timing of the campaign is linked to the drafting of legislation by the staff of the House Financial Services Committee that would establish “federal standards” for state insurance regulation–a moderate step that has broad support from all areas of the insurance industry.

When the life insurance industry’s latest campaign for an OFC for life carriers was launched in June, it was aimed at winning support starting in the Senate Banking Committee.

But the latest effort–the so-called “rift” initiative–is designed to climax with introduction of an amendment to the federal standards bill establishing a federal charter option for life insurers when and if the legislation is marked up in the House Financial Services Committee this fall.

Partly, the “rift” effort was organized because the life insurance industry has had difficulty gaining co-sponsors for its bill in the Senate Banking Committee beyond the original core of Sens. John Sununu, R-N.H., and Tim Johnson, D-S.D.

Presumably, the “rift” release from Levick Strategic Communications, LLC, in Washington, D.C. is an effort to get the media involved in the initiative, and to therefore write articles talking about a “rift” within the agent community that would give members of Congress political cover to support the calls for an OFC.

While the American Council of Life Insurers distanced itself from the release, the ACLI, the American Bankers Insurance Association and the Financial Services Roundtable are all involved in the latest initiative for an OFC for life insurers.

The release selects the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America for particular scorn, charging that “the Big I is trying to squash this growing movement and maintain the status quo.”

This raises a number of issues.

o First, the IIABA represents the property-casualty industry, not the life side of the business.

o Second, the Big I denies any discord within its ranks over its federal lobbying policies. “There is no truth whatsoever to the allegation made by the so-called group ‘Agents for Change’ that there is a rift in the independent insurance agent community regarding insurance regulatory reform,” said Charles Symington, senior vice president of government affairs and federal relations.

“Big I members overwhelmingly oppose an optional federal charter. With that said, our membership does support modernizing state insurance regulation, and that is why we support the SMART Act being drafted by Reps. Mike Oxley and Richard Baker,” he added, referring to the bill that would set federal standards for state regulation.

o Third, there appear to be few signs of concern over the lobbying policies of the primary life agent group–the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors.

David Woods, CEO of NAIFA, denied the existence of strong grass roots support for an OFC for life. “NAIFA is not in the business of picking fights with anybody, and I don’t know where this idea of a ‘rift’ came from,” he said.

“NAIFA’s whole purpose is to bring about regulatory reform that will be in the best interests of our members, their clients, prospects and policyholders. That could include any one of the number of proposals out there–the interstate compact, the SMART act, an OFC, or some other proposal that hasn’t yet surfaced. Our position at the moment is to be aware and study all of them and see what develops,” he added.

“There is absolutely no rift, and no challenge to our leadership,” declared Woods. “We are simply studying all options.”

Thus it seems the “rift” initiative has fallen flat, reaching highly skeptical ears from people in the media familiar with the issue–and reflecting more on its initiators than on its target–as the ACLI decision to distance itself from the effort confirms.

But privately, members of Congress and industry lobbyists believe the proposal has legs–perhaps not in this Congress, but in the next one. Key members of the House Financial Services Committee are already asking lobbyists for p-c companies if they would support a life-only charter, and p-c lobbyists believe influential members of Congress are becoming supportive.

The critical hurdle to secure essential p-c industry support is some sort of national standard for relief from state rate regulation. Otherwise, there will be no p-c insurer backing, and the initiative will languish.

Arthur D. Postal is NU’s Washington Editor. He may be reached at apostal@nuco.com

Quotebox, with Postal mug (to come) or shot of Capitol Hill (if shot fails to materialize):

“The ‘rift’ initiative has fallen flat, reaching highly skeptical ears from people in the media familiar with the issue–and reflecting more on its initiators than on its target–as the ACLI decision to distance itself from the effort confirms.”

Arthur D. Postal