WASHINGTON - David M. Strauss, deputy chief of staff to Vice
President Al Gore, is the White
House's pick for the top job at the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.
An official announcement of his appointment as executive director is expected any day.
Mr. Strauss, in a telephone interview, confirmed he is awaiting completion of White House paperwork for the appointment. He would succeed Martin Slate, who died Feb. 23.
Despite his lack of hands-on experience in the pension world and his involvement in the White House fund-raising scandals, Mr. Strauss is widely considered to be a good choice.
Mr. Strauss was named in a March 3 New York Times article as having sat in on weekly White House meetings at which top presidential aides discussed fund-raising with top Democratic National Committee officials; that article has been circulating among key Senate and House pension committees on the Hill. But because the PBGC executive director is a White House pick appointed by the Secretary of Labor and not subject to Senate confirmation, lawmakers are expected to have little leverage in blocking his appointment.
"My ethics are above reproach. I have not attended anything at the White House that was improper," Mr. Strauss said in the interview with Pensions & Investments.
Observers say Mr. Strauss' appointment would prove the White House's commitment to retirement income protection.
"Coming from a deputy chief of staff to the vice president to the PBGC is an exclamation mark behind this administration's commitment to retirement income security, and in particular safeguarding pensions for workers," said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., who has an active interest in pension issues.
"He is extraordinarily thorough and intense. He will be a director that will meld the technical regulatory pension issues at the PBGC with the broader policy perspective in enhancing workers' pension security," said Mr. Pomeroy, who, like Mr. Strauss, is a native of Valley City, N.D.
Labor groups agree.
That the Clinton administration wants "to send one of their most senior aides to the issue can't mean anything but that this is a pretty important issue to the White House," said Bart Naylor, director of corporate affairs at the Washington headquarters of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
The Teamsters union, among other unions, supports Mr. Strauss' appointment.
Mr. Strauss will be "good for the agency and good for the issue," said Shaun O'Brien, retirement policy specialist at the AFL-CIO, Washington.
"They're giving us somebody who knows how Washington works, and it seems pretty clear that he has had an important voice in policy-making in the administration," he said.
"David Strauss' appointment will provide the PBGC with the kind of political leadership it has never had," said Mark J. Ugoretz, president of The ERISA Industry Committee, a Washington trade group representing many of America's largest companies. His background will make him an effective spokesman for the agency and an arbiter for the business community."
Mr. Strauss' resume states that as top adviser to the vice president since 1994, he helped develop White House policy options on a range of economic and domestic issues including retirement policy. He was involved in working on the Retirement Protection Act, signed by President Clinton in December 1994.
"While I'm not a Title IV (of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act) expert, retirement protection was part of the portfolio" of duties, Mr. Strauss said in the interview.
He also is believed to have close ties with private sector employers. "I would assume that he would be certainly interested in listening to the private sector and private sector concerns," said Angela Arnett, senior counsel at the American Council of Life Insurance, a Washington trade group.
What Mr. Strauss lacks in experience on pension matters, he makes up through his breadth of management skills, his close connections with the White House and an intimate knowledge of the workings of Capitol Hill, observers say.
The job of PBGC executive director "is not about substance. This is about leadership and management and career smarts and good judgment and how Washington works," said Randolf H. Hardock, partner at the Washington law firm of Davis & Harman, and a former senior Clinton administration official who knows Mr. Strauss well.
Ann L. Combs, a principal at William M. Mercer Inc. in Washington, concurred.
"Obviously it would be preferable to have an executive director who has pension experience. . . . But people at that level generally come up to speed on the issues (fast)," said Ms. Combs, who was a deputy assistant labor secretary in the administration of President Bush.
Besides, Mr. Strauss' 13 years on Capitol Hill - as the staff director to the Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works as well as chief of staff to Sens. Quentin N. Burdick, D-N.D., and John Breaux, D-La. - count for a lot too, observers say.
And finally, Mr. Strauss' job might not necessitate familiarity with the minutiae of pension law because Mr. Slate put into place a carefully culled team from the IRS, the Labor Department and elsewhere. With a few exceptions, that team is expected to remain in place.
One key person who is widely rumored to be heading for the exit is Ellen "Nell" Hennessy, deputy executive director and chief negotiator.
She was one of two insiders on the shortlist for the job.
Ms. Hennessy is said to be considering returning to the private sector. She declined to discuss her plans.
Joseph Grant, PBGC deputy executive director and chief operating officer, also in the running for the top spot, is expected to stay.
Thomas G. Schendt, a partner in the Washington office of Alston & Bird and a former colleague of Mr. Slate at the IRS, said Mr. Slate "made the PBGC a well-run organization and (did) it by surrounding himself with extraordinarily talented people."
Mr. Schendt previously was a technical assistant to the associate chief counsel in the IRS' division of employee benefits/exempt organizations.