I generally defer to my colleague Patricia Kilday Hart when it comes to covering the Senate, but I am going to make an exception for the debate on the Texas Department of Insurance sunset bill. Hart has written about the amendments that Democrats, led by Kirk Watson, were able to get author Glen Hegar to agree to, but I want to write about the amendments that the Democrats offered on the floor. These included:
* Requiring the insurance commission to give prior approval to proposed rates for residential property before they can take effect.
* Likewise requiring prior approval to proposed rates for health benefit plans.
* Mandating a standard policy form so that consumers can compare the coverage offered by competing companies.
* Prohibiting companies that choose to withdraw from the residential and automobile markets from reentering the state for five years.
* Restricting the practice of credit scoring.
* Electing the insurance commissioner.
Various Democrats offered these amendments, and each in turn was tabled by a straight party line vote of 18-12. (Chris Harris was absent, excused.) I’m amazed. Are Republican senators really that tone deaf? Insurance reform is a staple Democratic issue. Why would Republicans vote straight-party against a series of pro-consumer amendments?
Lest I be misunderstood, I am not speaking to the merits of the amendments. I have already written that an elected commissioner is a bad idea. I do think that a standard policy would be very helpful in comparing rates, and I also think that if Texas is going to have a regulated market, then the regulator ought to regulate through prior approval of rates, rather than let insurance companies post the rates of their dreams and put the burden on the commissioner to show that it is excessive or discriminatory.
What interests me is the politics. Republicans have cast some bad votes here. They have denied the voters the right to elect the commissioners. They have sanctioned the file-and-use process that can easily be abused. Insurance reform is a volatile issue that has always cut the Democrats way in the voting booth, if not on the Senate floor. Why wasn’t the Republican leadership alert to the danger? An even better question is why wasn’t Dewhurst alert to the danger? He owns those votes now. I’m told that he finally figured it out about halfway through the series of amendments. Too late. The Republicans won the battle of 18-12, but the war is yet to come.