WASHINGTON - After four months of political skirmishing, the Clinton administration finally has a new secretary of labor, but it's too early to tell whether there will be a hard-hitting pension agenda.
"I don't think the fact that (Alexis) Herman has been confirmed means we're going to see any great immediate changes" in a legislative or regulatory pension agenda, said Sam Murray, vice president of governmental affairs for the Profit Sharing/401(k) Council of America, Washington.
Ms. Herman will have several supporting positions to fill, such as executive director of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. While that position has remained open since the death of Martin Slate in February, indications lean toward Deputy Executive Director and Chief Negotiator Nell Hennessy. Meanwhile, Assistant Secretary Olena Berg remains as head of the Pension Welfare and Benefits Administration. With 12 key labor slots needing to be filled, it seems Ms. Herman will keep Ms. Berg in her current post.
Many staffers, both at the PWBA and the PBGC, are raring to move onto legislative, regulatory, enforcement and other related initiatives now that a new secretary has been confirmed. Some say their jobs slowed considerably after pension simplification was passed last summer.
Late last month, the Senate confirmed Ms. Herman by an 85-13 vote. Ms. Herman, formerly the head of the White House Public Liaison office, was the latest political football being thrown between Republicans and Democrats. The vote came soon after President Clinton agreed to cancel a planned executive order that would have encouraged federal agencies to use union labor on construction contracts.
Several sources agreed the PWBA will continue to work on existing issues, such as plan audit legislation, which has failed in several previous congressional sessions; the legislation would wipe out limited-scope audits of plans and would increase plan auditors' responsibilities. A second issue, which Ms. Herman has supported publicly, is to improve the security, equity and accessibility of pension programs for women.
Many sources inside the department declined to be interviewed, and others outside the department said they weren't sure whether there would be any new issues pushed. Several pointed to Ms. Berg's recent testimony on her department's budget request for fiscal year 1998. In looking at the testimony, it seems the department might put more emphasis on administering the new 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
In her testimony to a House Appropriations subcommittee, Ms. Berg listed specific health issues as a top priority. In addition, the budget request shows the PWBA asked for $6.2 million and 63 full-time positions - more than half of which will be used for direct enforcement activities - for administering the health insurance act.
"We know from experience that there will be an increase in inquiries and complaints from participants and beneficiaries that will result in the identification of situations that require investigative follow-up and enforcement actions," Ms. Berg said in her testimony.
The Labor Department will continue its efforts to enforce new regulations governing 401(k) plan contributions. Last year, the department issued a regulation that shortens the time employers have to make employee contributions to 401(k) plans. Ms. Berg, in her testimony, requested $1.6 million and 16 full-time positions to beef up enforcement of the law. Since the department launched its crackdown on crooked plan sponsors in late 1995, it has recovered $23 million.
"In order for PWBA to be responsive to the exponential growth of 401(k) plans, participants and assets, and related complaints, additional investigative staff devoted to this area are needed," Ms. Berg said in her testimony.
The department's third priority is to continue its educational efforts.
The PWBA is asking for $1 million and 10 full-time slots to make sure people understand responsibilities and rights under pension law.