When Main Street Met Washington

By | April 7, 2010

Amid wind-whipped exhaust fumes and an early March cold front, Connecticut insurance agent Michael Gergler ducks inside the lobby of the Wardman Park hotel in Washington, D.C. and surveys the lobby where roughly 150 other insurance agents have gathered.

It’s about 8:30 a.m. on March 4. In five minutes, Gergler will board a charter bus that will ferry him, a dozen of his Nutmeg State colleagues and roughly 35 other insurance agents to one of the three Senate office buildings – Russell, Dirksen and Hart – that line Constitution Avenue, just north of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. It’s a routine that, with small variation, roughly 1,000 agents affiliated with the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America (The Big “I”) will undertake this morning, making their way from congressional office to office to meet with their state’s legislative delegations.

The event, which has been put on annually by The Big “I” for decades, is designed as a grassroots lobbying campaign aimed at bolstering the trade groups day-to-day efforts in Washington. The one-day blitz puts insurance agents directly in front of their elected representatives and gives them the face-time to make their viewpoints known.

But for many of the agents, it’s also a chance to get an inside look at how decisions in Washington are made, and to hopefully play a role in setting a national agenda for independent insurance agents across the country.

“I have high expectations for today, but I can only hope they’ll listen,” says Gergler, co-owner of Wilcox & Reynolds Insurance, a 13-person insurance agency in Storrs, Connecticut. Gergler, who has been coming to the event for the last three years, says it’s helpful for he and his business. “I think we get our point across and hopefully they’re listening.”

They’re certainly speaking with the right people, at least. Later that day, he and the rest of the Connecticut contingent will have a private sit-down with Senator Chris Dodd, the Connecticut democrat who is also head of the Senate’s Banking Committee; in other words, a key decision maker on issues that affect insurance agents. They’ll also meet with staff for Connecticut’s other senator, Joe Lieberman, as well the state’s five house members.

The agents’ presence on Capitol Hill is a huge boon for The Big “I,” said President and CEO Robert Rusbuldt.

“Independent agents are real people (who) have real businesses, and they’re in every community in the United States of America,” he said. “When you go into a member of Congress’s office and you can relate your problems and concerns to the local community, they listen and they understand. That’s what independent agents do. Independent agents are the best lobbyists I have every seen. They sell insurance every day, and when you’re on Capitol Hill you’re selling ideas – and that’s what they do.”

Front Lines

Mississippi insurance agent Angelyn Treutel, said the analogy is a perfect one. “We are on the front lines day-to-day with actual clients, ac-tual consumers. And we know what they need. We’re advocates for them. So in doing that, we want to bring the message to our legislators, be-cause the things that they do, the rules that they implement, the new taxes and regulations that they impose on small business and individuals, it directly affects the people that we serve.”

Treutel and her husband, David, own Treutel Insurance Agency Inc., an 8-person agency in Bay Saint Louis, Miss., a town of about 8,200 peo-ple that lies in the state’s Gulf Coast region. She and David have come to D.C. for years as part of the lobbying blitz because, they said, “it’s not enough just to send emails and make phone calls.”

Like all of the agents who spend the day in the Capitol, they have been given a cheat sheet of terms and issues to broach with their lawmak-ers. The three most important this year: Health care reform (specifically, it’s impact on agents as both business owners and sellers of insurance), tax reform (the upkeep of soon-to-expire tax cuts and minimal estate taxes) and federal oversight of insurance (specifically, keeping regulatory oversight at the state level).

There are other issues, too, such as the weak coverage and constant lapses of the National Flood Insurance Program – a big deal for Treutel’s clients back in post-Katrina Mississippi – or the constant cuts to the federally funded crop insurance program.

But the big issues affect agents large and small across the country and the agents-turned-lobbyists-for-the-day make their pitches with calcu-lated uniformity, and frank determination.

“We’re at a crucial time in the insurance industry and a crucial time as a nation,” said Oliver Hitt, managing principal of the Collins, Miss. office of SouthGroup Insurance Services, who made the lobbying trip to D.C. for the first time this March. “I want to make sure that legislators under-stand that I’m not only an insurance agent, I’m a businessperson. What’s going to happen if some of this legislation is passed or is changed is I’m not going to have room to grow technologically. I won’t be able to add staff. These are real things that are going to affect me – and our industry – at the end of the day.”

Their impact is big, said Charles Symington, senior vice president of government affairs for The Big “I.”

“It’s one thing for me to go in and talk about where The Big “I” is, but it’s another thing for our actual agents to go in and express themselves, to talk about how these issues would impact them on a day-to-day basis, how they impact their customers and consumers on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “What members of Congress really want to hear about is how these issues impact their districts. You need constituents to come in and make that case.”

Making his was way among the halls of the Capitol office buildings, en route from a meeting with Sen. Dodd, Connecticut insurance agent Spencer Houldin said he intends to make that case as strongly as possible. Houldin, president of Ericson Insurance Services in Washington Depot, Conn., has had a good deal of practice doing so – it’s the fifteenth trip for him.

“This is our livelihood,” he said. “This is the livelihood of our business, of our families, of our employees. It’s important that we are politically active and explain to members of Congress how the work that they do affects us back home. It’s very easy when you’re stuck in Washington all day long to forget or not even to completely understand how some of their motives are affecting, day in and day out, their normal constituent.”

It’s an effort that Houldin said should be more than just once a year for insurance agents.

“It’s extremely important to be politically active 365 days out of the year,” he said. “Grassroots lobbying is the best way to effect political change. Certainly, coming to Washington in the spring as a group of people en masse will get the attention of members of Congress, but it can’t stop there. It needs to be every single day. Pick up the phone when pertinent issues come up to talk to your member of Congress about how you feel about an issue. There’s nothing more important.”

Big “I” CEO Rusbuldt said the impact of those interactions is invaluable.

“When an independent agent takes the time to leave their office, fly to Washington, D.C. and meet with their Senator or member of Congress, that resonates with that member of Congress,” he said. “It shows the member of Congress that they care so much about their employees and their clients to come to Washington and spend that time and money. They understand that.”

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