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Welcome Back, Congress

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As I was sitting at my desk last week thinking about what the subject of this column would be, it occurred to me that I was really anxious for Congress to return on Sept. 8 and begin to provide–once again!–a steady stream of material.

Whatever else it does or does not do, whether it passes laws or not, whether those laws are beneficial or harmful, whether it knows what the consequences of the laws it passes are or not, Congress unfailingly fulfills its mission to provide commentators with material.

Of course, our particular bailiwick of insurance provides special richness when it comes to material for comment. You all know the reason for this, but it doesn’t hurt to state it once again: Congress really knows squat about insurance. But like friends who are control freaks, Congress always feels it has to do something and just can’t contain itself from meddling.

The arcana of insurance holds a fascination that, apparently, is addictive and whose pangs of craving demand satisfaction at least once a session, but preferably more.

The one exception I make to the prevailing ignorance of insurance matters in the hallowed halls is Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., who was once the top insurance regulator in his state and the president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. Pomeroy knows his stuff.

And unlike other men who have held the post of NAIC president and then gone through the revolving door to high-paying positions in the business they once regulated, Pomeroy went on to further public service. His expertise is pretty widely acknowledged in Congress and his awareness of insurance issues actually is beneficial for the business.

In any case, it looks like Congress may actually deal with the forerunner of an optional federal charter this year by passing legislation that gives birth to the Office of Insurance Information within the Treasury Department.

Apparently the powers-that-be figure they have squeezed enough out of insurance companies and associations and other industry lobbyists for this go-round. Decency demands that they have to show them something for all the largesse that has been dispensed.

I think it’s pretty clear that once the OII is established, the optional federal charter will follow–in a couple of years at the latest. And after another round of shaking the money tree.

The OII is like being a little bit pregnant. You may be able to kid yourself for a while (wink, wink), but the baby is still going to arrive in the end.

And this baby’s going to be BIG. This baby’s going to change your life.

The NAIC seems to understand this. And that may be why it can barely contain itself from offering its services.

Am I the only one who finds unseemly the sight of a body of state insurance regulators succumbing to the temptation of being part of (and probably in their dreams, running) a federal insurance regulatory apparatus? No, I didn’t think so.

Yet, one of the things that many years of following Congress has shown is this: Be careful what you ask for. The reality is that industries rarely, if ever, get everything they want. And often what happens is that once an issue is in play, it becomes a plaything and is at the mercy of forces that easily get out of its control.

I’m not saying that the optional federal charter is a bad thing. But the industry–or those in it who want an OFC badly–are unlikely to get all they desire. There’s bound to be some devilish details.

The fact of the matter is that Congress almost always has the last laugh, no matter how many laughs it provides along the way.

Steve Piontek



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