Making our Voice Count
One of ACOPA’s responsibilities is to present the views of our membership to regulators and other relevant bodies. Last month I wrote about legislative proposals, and the success we (ASPPA/ACOPA, and now ARA) have had getting Congress to take our proposals seriously.
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Of course, getting our proposals into a piece of legislation sponsored by the leadership of relevant committees is just the first step, but it is an essential one. In spite of the sausage-making involved in actually enacting a proposal, legislation and legislative proposals have a certain glamour. By contrast, poring over pages of guidance and writing detailed comments to IRS, DOL, or PBGC can be tedious, and often just plain hard. ACOPA’s Government Affairs Committee does that job, and we are fortunate to have a group of volunteers that, in my opinion, does it very well.
Whether it is legislation or regulations, we have been very effective over the long haul. Why? Based on my time on the Hill and the eight years I have been here, I believe there are several critical components:
1. We know what we are talking about. By “we,” I don’t mean “me.” Believe me, when ACOPA GAC is putting together a letter commenting on proposed hybrid regs, or closed plan non-discrimination rule guidance, it is our volunteers working in the trenches on this “stuff” who provide our substantial knowledge base.
2. We keep an eye on policy. Whether legislative proposals, or comment letters, we always ask, “Is this good policy?” As you can imagine, when drafting comments, it can be tempting to ask for something that would just make life easier, but could do harm to non-owner participants in the process. A good example of this, I think, is the letter we wrote in response to Notice 2014-5. IRS has asked for comments on alternatives to the current gateway approach for combined DB/DC testing. After much debate, we concluded that IRS should not “eliminate the protection the gateway provides for all NHCEs in a benefits-tested arrangement.”
Earlier this year, I was attending a roundtable on the Hill. One of the participants commented that retirement industry groups (as opposed to think tanks or participant-centered groups) don’t want to do anything meaningful to expand coverage. Representing ARA more broadly in this instance, I spoke up to say our members are in the industry, and we support efforts to expand coverage, like auto-IRA proposals, as long as there is a level playing field for private providers. He said he didn’t think of us as an industry group, because we actually look for solutions. I consider that very high praise, and believe this attitude is core to ACOPA's, and ACOPA GAC’s, success.
3. We try not to spend too much energy tilting at windmills, or ranting about what ‘they” have done to us. There's plenty of the latter on our calls sometimes, but we try to make our comments constructive. Instead of just venting frustration, we try to make guidance better. A recent example of this is the letter ARA sent to IRS on their changes to the determination letter program. (Although it was not specifically an ACOPA letter, we had input during the letter-writing process.) We knew very well that IRS had made up its mind, so we focused on how their decision could be implemented. At ASPPA’s Annual Conference, Sunita Lough, IRS’ Commissioner of Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division, thanked us for a constructive comment letter, contrasting it with many letters that said, “Don’t do it.” We shared the desire to just shriek “NO,” but we channeled our energy down a more constructive path. (Some comments from the floor at the conference were definitely more aggressive.)
This doesn’t mean we don’t come down hard when believe we need to. Read the letters we sent on 412(d)(2) in January 2011 and August 2014. But it does mean that we take a step back, ask ourselves how we can get the best possible outcome, and then invest our energy in getting there.
It will be interesting to see what challenges the new year brings. Whatever they are, we have put ourselves in a good position to help our membership, plans sponsors and participants, and the private retirement system.