WASHINGTON -- Long after Rep. Harris W. Fawell, R-Ill., has retired from Congress, lawmakers and retirement experts will still be debating ways to boost the nation's savings rate at national forums, thanks to his legislation, enacted into law in 1997.
The law, Savings Are Vital to Everyone's Retirement Act, resulted in the first national summit on savings in June this year, and two more are planned in 2001 and 2005.
Mr. Fawell retires as head of the House Subcommittee on Employer-Employee Relations at the end of the year.
The SAVER Act, like other legislation he has pushed for in the past, exemplifies his views of doing what would be in the best long-term interests of the nation's private pension system.
Back in 1994, when many of his colleagues in the newly elected majority pushed hard to let corporations tap surplus pension fund assets for other uses, Mr. Fawell used his newly appointed position as subcommittee chair to fight Republican-sponsored legislation allowing this.
That "asset reversion" bill, which also was vigorously opposed by the Clinton administration, ultimately was defeated.
Mr. Fawell also broke ranks with his colleagues on legislation that would exempt pension fund assets managed by insurance companies in their central investment pools from federal pension law. Mr. Fawell held hearings voicing his opposition, but the legislation introduced by former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kan., and Rep. Marge Roukema, R-N.J., and supported by the Clinton administration, ultimately became part of the 1996 Small Business Job Protection Act.
More recently, he has stood apart from his Republican colleagues who have sought to make individual retirement accounts more flexible by letting working Americans tap them for college tuition, new homes and other big-ticket items. Instead, Mr. Fawell has spoken out on the need for such accounts to be water-tight.
IRAs, he says, should be "inviolate." Letting Americans empty out their IRAs for immediate financial needs is a big mistake, he warns.
"We ought not to create a retirement account and then make it so porous it is full of holes when you hit 65," he observes, lambasting lawmakers for adopting populist views that could seriously damage Americans' ability to live comfortably in old age.
As head of a House subcommittee with jurisdiction over retirement issues, one of his tasks has been to change the attitude "about retirement plans being glorified savings accounts," he said.
That's quintessesential Fawell.
"His most recent accomplishement (the SAVER Act) was getting something passed that (ensured) an issue of importance to the nation will continue to be attended (to) at least six year after he retires from Congress," noted Dallas Salisbury, president of the Washington-based Employee Benefit Research Institute.
"That, in essence, underlies his service in Congress, which focused on longer-term interest of the nation," Mr. Salisbury said.
Mr. Fawell, who was elected in 1984 and filled the spot vacated by Rep. John Erlenborn, a key supporter of retirement issues, on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, "has been an outstanding legislator, and he has been willing to do what few others have done, which is understand how ERISA works," said Mark Ugoretz, president of the ERISA Industry Committee, a Washington-based employer group.
James Klein, president of the Association of Private Pension and Welfare Plans, echoes his comments. "I've always felt that Rep. Fawell is a lawyer's lawyer. He understands and gets into the nitty-gritty of labor and pension law . . . and brings to it the perspective of someone who has practiced law before coming to Congress," he said.
His legacy will be the increased attention paid to pension and retirement income issues, said another pension expert who did not wish to be identified.
The objective of the SAVER Summit was "to get a foot in the door and focus people's attention on the long-term --that pensions, in the face of changing demographics and Social Security, have to be addressed."
Moreover, Mr. Fawell has been as effective in blocking legislation that would have harmed the nation's private pension system as in seeking legislation that would enhance it, Mr. Ugoretz observed.
A case in point: Mr. Fawell was vehemently opposed to legislation in the early 1990s that would have made it easier for pension funds to invest in socially motivated investments. He led efforts in the House to block the Clinton administration's efforts to encourage pension funds to invest in "economically targeted investments," which he termed a "potential risk to the safety of American pensions."
Mr. Fawell says there wasn't time for all the pension-related legislation he had hoped to, such as cloning the very successful retirement program for teachers, the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association College Retirement Equities Fund, for other professions.
Instead, Mr. Fawell said he chose to focus on health care, where the coverage problem for Americans is far worse.