Rubbing Elbows With Benefit Celebs

One of the cool perks of my job is heading to Washington, D.C. each spring for the Foundation’s Washington Legislative Update . Being just a few minutes’ walk to our nation’s Capitol is invigorating. The focus of “Wash Up,” as the Foundation staff calls it, is to bring the Foundation’s members to those who mold the laws that shape our work and the lives of those we serve. Attendees hear from regulators, legislators and others “inside the Beltway.

In the speakers’ room, I sit beside regulators from major agencies—IRS, DOL, PBGC—as they make final edits to their presentation. We talk about their kids, their dogs, their commute, the weather. And then they’ll step onto the stage and talk about the billions of dollars they oversee or announce a small shift in policy that has major implications on members’ plans.

Meeting people face to face after studying their bios, their policies and clips from the news often leaves me star-struck. This feeling peaks when it comes to the Public Service Award. The Foundation acknowledges a public service figure who has worked toward the betterment of employee benefits. Past winners have been senators, representatives and government agency leaders.

The day of the award presentation is always filled with nervous tension. We never really know for certain if the recipient will show. We can’t plan around legislative votes or other significant meetings, so a congressperson’s availability is always elusive. In the minutes prior to session start time, Foundation staff start pacing, each watching a different hotel entrance, looking for our VIP arrival. So, on the morning of the award presentation, 30 minutes prior to session start, I was a bit startled when I saw the familiar face walking toward me—without entourage, without warning—at his requested time of arrival. Rep. Phil Roe greeted me with a smile and a handshake and said simply, “Hi. I’m Phil Roe.”

The Foundation selected Congressman Phil Roe of Tennessee to receive  the 2014 Public Service Award. I’ve watched Rep. Roe chair hearings dealing with multiemployer pension issues in his role as chairman of the Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions. I was impressed with his grasp of the highly complex nature of multiemployer pension plans. I was also impressed with his questioning—It was clear he wanted to hear all sides of the story.

Not being from Tennessee, I didn’t know much about Rep. Roe aside from what I read in assorted bios. When he spoke, he shared his history, including his 30 years as an obstetrician. His childhood home, like everyone else in his community, did not have indoor plumbing. His community was not prosperous. Earlier in his political career, he was mayor of Johnson City, which provided his introduction to defined benefit plans. He saw how they worked and how they provided security to the garbagemen and schoolteachers who depended on that promise of a secure future. He noted how a multiemployer pension plan allows a worker to go from job to job and still retire with security.

The Public Service Award recipient receives a $1,000 honorarium, which is given to a charity of the recipient’s choice. Rep. Roe announced that he’s giving it to Keystone Dental Care, a nonprofit dental clinic in Johnson City, Tennessee. Its mission is to provide basic dental care to adults in poverty. This announcement was greeted with spontaneous applause from our audience.

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