WASHINGTON -- Leslie B. Kramerich, the White House pick for deputy assistant at the Labor Department's pension and welfare benefits administration, is getting a thumbs up from pension lobbyists and retirement experts.
Ms. Kramerich, 40, will replace Meredith Miller, who is leaving mid-December. Currently a partner in the heavyweight Washington law firm of Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand, Ms. Kramerich will function in an interim position until Ms. Miller leaves, according to a Labor Department spokeswoman, who said no timetable has been set for when she will join.
Ms. Kramerich did not return numerous calls seeking comment.
Ms. Kramerich's appointment, which comes halfway through President Clinton's second term, is considered important because the administration has apparently deferred plans to name a new assistant secretary to replace E. Olena Berg. That's because of fears a White House nominee for the top federal pension regulator's job might get bogged down in partisan politics on Capitol Hill.
Even if the White House were to announce a nominee, it could not do so until lawmakers return next January, and security clearances and Senate hearings could drag on until mid-1999, sources say.
Because the deputy assistant secretary does not require Senate confirmation, this maneuver lets the Clinton administration appoint a person who will in fact be acting as the assistant labor secretary, without being grilled by lawmakers.
While continuing to be a deputy assistant secretary, Ms. Miller assumed Ms. Berg's responsibilities at the Labor Department after the latter left in June.
"I think it's a terrific choice. Leslie is very talented and knows the issues," said Ann L. Combs, principal in the Washington office of William M. Mercer Inc., who held the deputy assistant secretary spot in the Bush administration.
"She's great," agreed Lynn D. Dudley, director of retirement policy at the Association of Private Pension and Welfare Plans, a Washington pension lobbying group.
"She is infinitely approachable and has a level head on her shoulders."
Janice Gregory, vice president at the ERISA Industry Committee, concurred. "She's extremely bright, and she is one of those people who can see both the big picture, and understand and grasp the importance of detail at the same time."
Brian H. Graff, executive director of the American Society of Pension Actuaries, Arlington, Va., which represents small employers, called Ms. Kramerich "bright and very enthusiastic."
What makes Ms. Kramerich unusual is that she worked on pension issues both on Capitol Hill (with Republican and Democratic lawmakers) as well as in a federal government agency, said Randolf H. Hardock, partner in the Washington law firm of Davis & Harman and a former benefits tax counsel at the U.S. Treasury Department.
"You start with someone who could be effective because of an understanding of the legislative branch, but also knows the executive branch and knows the players," he said.
David M. Strauss, who as executive director of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. is Ms. Kramerich's boss, briefly last year before she returned to the private sector, echoed those sentiments.
"Leslie has a great background," he said.
Ms. Kramerich worked briefly at the American Association of Retired Persons in the early 1980s before working with Sen. John Heinz, R-Pa., who has since died, as a staffer on the Senate Special Committee on Aging. While on Capitol Hill, she also worked as benefits counsel to Sen. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn., chairman of the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Health, before moving into private practice at Verner, Liipfert.
In the early 1990s, Ms. Kramerich worked at the PBGC, assisting in negotiations with companies with underfunded pension plans, before being sent to the Capitol Hill to work with Sen. Minority Leader Thomas Daschle, D-S.D., where she helped craft pension legislation in 1996 and 1997.
She returned to the law firm late last year as a partner.
At the Labor Department, which walks a fine line between ensuring workers' pensions are safe and employers are not hamstrung by red tape, Ms. Kramerich will need to look at existing rules and regulations and see which can be scrapped, Ms. Gregory said.
At the same time, while Ms. Miller had, until Ms. Berg's departure earlier this year, worked mostly on health care issues, Ms. Kramerich might be spending a lot of time next year on pension legislation and regulatory issues, Mr. Hardock said. "Pension issues are much hotter."
On the front burner at the Labor Department are issues relating to disclosure of 401(k) plan fees, and regulations guiding life insurance companies on the management of pension plan assets in their general accounts or central investment pools, as well as guidance on soft dollars.