Why Preemption?

If, like me, you are fascinated not just by ERISA but by history and politics, this two part law review article, by James Wooten at the University at Buffalo Law School, on how ERISA preemption came to be, looks to be a must read. Here’s the abridged version of the story detailed in his articles: 

[The first of his two articles] recounts the key role of preemption issues in Congress's decision to pass ERISA. Until shortly before ERISA's enactment, employers and the AFL-CIO opposed comprehensive pension reform legislation. When states threatened to regulate private pension and welfare plans, however, the business community's and the AFL-CIO's strong desire for preemption all but forced them to support a federal pension reform law. Their support made passage of such legislation a virtual certainty. [The second of his two articles continues the story, explaining] how preemption issues led Congress to pass a broader pension reform law than it might otherwise have done. Business groups and the Nixon Administration hoped the congressional tax committees would limit the scope of federal regulation of pension plans. The congressional rules, however, gave jurisdiction over Congress's power to preempt state employment laws to the labor committees. Their control over preemption allowed the labor committees to bargain for broader regulation than business groups and the Administration preferred.

Some twenty years or so ago, the historian Arthur Schlesinger published his book The Cycles of American History, on the idea that certain themes in American political life rise, fall, and then rise again over predictable periods of time. In much the same way, you can see, in the current rush by states to enact fair share and other health insurance reform laws, a rebirth of the same urge to regulate that, as Professor Wooten points out, gave rise to ERISA preemption in the first place, some thirty years ago.

You can download Professor Wooten’s articles detailing this history here (the first article) and here (the second).