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Principle Survival

We have friends on both sides of the aisle, and our enemies on one issue are our allies on another. And while we may compromise, we will hang onto our principles.

By  Joel Wood

More than 13 months from the mid-term congressional elections, it is impossible to predict the extent to which Democratic majorities in Congress will soften. It is even more difficult to predict what the implications for the insurance brokerage industry will be.

But every sign is that President Obama’s unreasonably stratospheric popularity ratings are sagging, and this has negative implications for congressional Democrats.

This is how Washington’s best, nonpartisan, political commentator, Charlie Cook, sees it: “Democrats can now assume that the charmed life they enjoyed in 2006 and 2008 is over. The wind, waves and tides, which were strong and at their backs in those elections, will, at best, be still in 2010. The chances of those forces being in their faces this time are rising.”

I’m 18 years into my job and still bragging that, while I have my own partisan leanings, the overwhelming majority of the issues I’ve worked on are not partisan. We get to work both sides of the aisle, and each issue—from regulatory reform, to terrorism insurance coverage, to natural catastrophe legislation, to tax issues—presents opportunities for working with conservatives, liberals, Republicans and Democrats alike.
Despite the sea change in Congress ushered in by President Obama and massive new Democratic majorities, life goes on as before. We’re still laboring to get our surplus lines reform legislation through, and we have great expectations that we’ll (finally) do so by the end of this session of Congress. We continue to push the envelope on broader regulatory reforms as well, hopeful that the ultimate systemic risk/financial re-regulation legislation will force-feed an agenda of harmonization and uniformity within the states.

On each of these concerns, we have friends on both sides of the aisle. We’re grateful, for example, for everything that Financial Services chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., has done for surplus lines legislation. We’re happy that Sens. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Tim Johnson, D-S.D., have given “air time” to our issues in the Senate Banking Committee.

But the issue of healthcare reform has been uncomfortably partisan for us. We remain hopeful that Congress will pass legislation that meaningfully reduces costs and increases availability of coverage and quality of care. We are convinced that a laundry list of proposals (principally in the area of insurance market reforms coupled with an individual mandate) could be enacted on a relatively bipartisan basis. This could constitute comprehensive reform that President Obama could embrace and claim as his own.

But there are multiple areas where the liberal majorities in Congress have demonstrated a tin ear to our concerns. The disastrous debate over the “public option” leads that list, but there have been more: rollbacks in flex-spending accounts and other options for employers and employees; burdens that undermine the employer-provided group health insurance marketplace; and a fairly ridiculous vilification campaign against health plans, which have been holding their fire throughout the year and pushing for constructive reforms. Most disappointing were the proposals that would have literally written brokers out of their role in offering services to Americans via the proposed insurance exchanges, with or without the public option.

The gratifying thing was that we proved that we were not without recourse. Thanks to key senators on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, we managed to change a provision regarding “navigators” that would have tilted exchange intermediation to activist groups like Acorn and away from brokers. Thanks to blue-dog Democrats (specifically, Rep. Charlie Melancon of Louisiana) on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, we were assured that the intermediation role of brokers would go on. This is small comfort if the ultimate legislation dramatically undermines the private group health insurance marketplace, but it is evidence that we still have stroke—even on issues that have become so partisan. We have many Democratic friends to turn to (such as Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb.), who have been there for us on our specific issues.

I could write a thesis on every issue whose dynamics would change, and how they would, under a Democratic Congress with significantly reduced majorities. (It is unthinkable at this writing that Republicans could regain control in 2010 in either chamber.)

On most of the issues, we’ll continue to move the dial in one direction or another, as we have for decades. As Groucho Marx once said: “These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have other ones.” But on the issue of health insurance reform, we will long remember those who were there for us—and those who weren’t. It will define, to the highest degree, our political involvement in individual races.

We will always strive to be friends with every member of Congress. We’ll dust ourselves off if we’re not successful and charge back into any office for help, no matter where they’ve been on our issues. But we do have key principles when it comes to the role of the professional insurance broker in providing valuable services to clients and their millions of employees. As Henry Kissinger famously noted: “While we should never give up our principles, we must also realize that we cannot maintain our principles unless we survive.”

Wood is The Council’s SVP of Government Affairs.

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