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THE CURRENT CONGRESS still has a few weeks of life before it passes into the history books, but it appears likely to be remembered as a "do nothing" Congress as far as significant risk management and property/casualty insurance issues go.
It's not from lack of trying. The House and Senate leadership often lined up behind reforms sought by risk managers and insurers. The generally pro-employer lawmakers of the 105th Congress proposed legislation designed, among other things, to reform Superfund, to overhaul the product liability system, and to make needed changes in the way the Occupational Safety and Health Administration carries out its duties.
But nothing came of these efforts -- other than some OSHA fine-tuning and the enactment of a limited biomaterials product liability reform law -- during this Congress' nearly two-year run, when reform effort after reform effort ran into opposition from the Clinton administration.
Just a few days ago, the Republican leadership threw in the towel on the last -- and admittedly minor -- risk management issue awaiting action, reform of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Once again, it wasn't for lack of trying; congressional leaders spent months attempting to work out the details of modest reform with their Democratic counterparts and administration representatives. And RCRA reform will be a priority in the Senate next year, according to its advocates. As Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Chafee, R-R.I., pointed out, this Congress has "essentially run out of time" to deal with the issue.
Of course, that's not the first time Congress has run out of time to settle such an issue, and it won't be the last. But the disappointments of the past several years should cause employers to rethink their strategies, at least as long as an administration that is opposed to their positions on many matters remains in place.
As we noted some weeks ago, the successful effort to pass the biomaterials bill could serve as a model for enacting reforms for the foreseeable future. Carefully targeted legislation such as the biomaterials bill and its predecessor, the General Aviation Reform Act, have fared better than sweeping reform efforts under the current political circumstances.
Risk managers and insurers also should put aside, at least temporarily, such venerable issues as comprehensive Superfund liability reform and concentrate their efforts on more achievable goals. Throwing time and money into an effort that's sure to draw a veto -- if it gets that far -- without gaining any political capital does no one any good.
Smaller isn't always beautiful, but in terms of liability reform legislation, it may be all that's doable in the short term. Even with a sympathetic Congress, comprehensive reform has foundered. Limited measures that can be put before lawmakers early in the session -- provided, of course, that their attention isn't wholly consumed by certain serious constitutional questions -- could help assure that the sobriquet "do nothing" will not apply to the 106th Congress as well.