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WASHINGTON -- Risk management and property/casualty insurance issues generally fell by the wayside in the 105th Congress.

Hopes that such longstanding goals as product liability reform could be achieved were dashed despite promising starts. Other issues, like Superfund liability reform, never really moved beyond the talking stage.

But observers take some comfort in the fact that they did score some tactical victories and that some of the larger issues appear likely to re-emerge in the next Congress.

"We did get a few small victories with biomaterials and possibly Y2K and securities litigation reform if the president signs the bills. This was a Congress of small gestures," said Anne Allen, director-government affairs for the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc. in New York.

"If you judge this Congress by the bad things they could have done to us, it was not unsuccessful. If you judge this Congress by the things we tried to pass as opposed to block, it's not looking real good," said Joel Wood, senior vp-government affairs for the Council of Insurance Agents & Brokers in Washington.

"It's always easier to stop something than to pass something and we've experienced that more vividly in the 105th Congress than we have in recent memory," he said.

"It's pretty clear" that a number of the issues of interest to insurers -- including tort reform and Superfund reform -- weren't of great interest to Congress and the public in general, said David M. Farmer, senior vp-federal affairs with the Alliance of American Insurers in Washington. Opponents of reform were once again able to put together a message that resonated louder than those in the reform camp "despite the fact that Superfund continues to be a bad law poorly administered and despite the fact that a balanced civil justice system is in everyone's interest and not simply corporate America," Mr. Farmer said.

But he remains optimistic that both Superfund and product liability reform will reappear on the agenda of the next Congress.

RIMS' Ms. Allen did not share the optimism over product liability reform's chances.

"As for tort reform, I don't see the products bill going through in the next two years. There is usually a year or two lag time between the major efforts and incremental bills, and while placeholder bills may go in, at this point it might make more sense to wait for a new administration," she said.

It's impossible to tell what will happen with product liability reform before Nov. 3 elections, said James A. Anderson, vp-government relations for the National Assn. of Wholesaler-Distributors in Washington.

"You've got to find out what the hand is you're dealt before you can really play it," he said.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., has already indicated that product liability reform will be back on the Senate's agenda next year. A modest reform bill won the backing of the White House after months of negotiations but fell victim to Senate wrangling over unrelated health reform amendments in July (BI, July 13).

Product liability advocates, however, did win a modest victory later in the summer when President Clinton signed into law a bill that granted some immunity from product liability suits to manufacturers of the raw materials used in certain medical devices.

Certain targeted tort reforms also emerged from Congress during its final days. Lawmakers approved White House-backed legislation that would grant companies some legal protections if they share information about dealing with the Year 2000 computer virus and a measure that would require that most class-action lawsuits involving nationally traded securities be tried in federal rather than state court.

Lawmakers also resurrected a bill designed to encourage mediation and arbitration rather than litigation in certain federal civil disputes and sent it on the White House for President Clinton's signature.

Efforts to reform environmental liability laws also stalled. Even modest Superfund reform failed to gain sufficient support to move to the floor of either house. In addition, an initially popular bill designed to fine-tune the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act failed to come to a vote.

Reform of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has long been a business priority, also failed to materialize in any big way, though several narrow bills fine-tuning the agency's practices did become law. The new laws, however, merely codified initiatives that OSHA had implemented administratively, such as banning the use of citation and fine quotas in measuring the job performance of inspectors.

The Alliance's Mr. Farmer predicted, however, that "another issue that seems to be percolating" -- a renewed debate over whether insurance should be regulated on the state or federal level -- could re-emerge in the next Congress.

Continuing debate over financial services regulation will play a key role in reviving the issue of federal regulation of insurance, though life insurers rather than property/casualty insurers will be the driving force in the renewed debate, he predicted. Although many large commercial property/casualty insurers sought a federal solvency regulatory regime in the early 1990s, the issue fell dormant after Republicans won control of both houses of Congress in the 1994 elections.