The retirement announcement of Rep. Barney Frank no doubt had a lot of tongues wagging among insurance lobbyists on Capitol Hill and in carrier home offices around the country, with the focus on whether the financial-services reform law that bears his name will ultimately survive his departure—and if so, in what form.
The outspoken Massachusetts Democrat, who said he won’t be running for re-election in 2012 after 32 years in the House of Representatives, made his mark when he chaired the House Financial Services Committee by leading the fight to pass the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.
Frank admitted he was worn down by the partisan bickering in Congress, particularly now that he’s in the minority party in the House. Plus, he noted that his district has been redrawn, requiring a more vigorous and expensive campaign to hold his seat than he’d like to take on at the age of 71.
But whatever the reason, a fierce defender of financial-services regulatory reform is preparing to step aside, following in the footsteps of the co-author of his landmark legislation, Sen. Chris Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat who left Congress last year.
Frank still serves as the ranking Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, but it’s been an uphill battle to implement his signature law. In press interviews following his announcement, Frank lamented the lack of cooperation on Capitol Hill these days, particularly when it comes to seeing his vision for Dodd-Frank fully realized.
He complained that his opponents were trying to nickel-and-dime the budgets of regulators whose duty it is to implement Dodd-Frank, but expressed doubt that efforts to scale back many of the law’s provisions—including a number of those impacting insurers—would ultimately prevail.
Still, with such a fierce proponent of reform on his way out the door, it’s fair to ask whether Dodd-Frank will remain intact after the exit of both its chief defenders. It’s still way too early to say, with the outcome of the 2012 election just one major factor to consider.
However, it’s likely that no matter which party ends up running Congress and the White House come 2013, the battle over how (or even whether) to implement Dodd-Frank could go on for years. That means insurers will probably remain in compliance limbo for quite some time and will have to adapt on the fly as regulatory reform plays out.
Adding more uncertainty into the mix is how Solvency II rules inEuropewill be finalized, as well as the outcome of the Solvency Modernization Initiative launched by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
In the meantime, one thing we know for sure is that the Federal Insurance Office created under Dodd-Frank is finally getting up to speed. Indeed, within a couple of months we’ll see the FIO’s take on state regulation when the agency’s first high-profile report is due to Congress. While it’s not expected that the report will call for radical changes, the fact is we just don’t know what role the FIO will eventually carve out for itself under Uncle Sam’s federal regulatory umbrella.
One last thought about Frank: He will be missed by one group for certain—the media. Indeed, he rarely failed to live up to his name, and was rarely shy about being “frank” with his views. No one in Congress provided more entertaining and provocative sound bites. For example, in a speech right after his bombshell announcement, he reassured his audience that his retirement proclamation was not the reason why the stock market had soared nearly 500 points the day before.
I covered a number of Frank’s speeches while I was Editor in Chief of National Underwriter, including one in which he insisted he was not in favor of direct federal regulation of insurer market conduct.
Frank was a state legislator for eight years before he was elected to the House, and I recall him openly lamenting having to deal with the complaints of constituents about their auto and homeowners insurance premiums or when they sought his intervention collecting on claims. With tongue only partly in cheek, he said a big reason why he had come toWashingtonwas to avoid such pleas, and that the last thing he wanted to do was flood his congressional switchboard with similar insurance-related calls.
Of course, that was long before the financial crisis hit and insurance was swept up in the regulatory reform current, thanks in large part to Frank’s efforts. He has certainly made a lasting impression on the industry, but it remains to be seen whether his legacy will last long beyond his departure from Congress—at least when it comes to insurance.