5 Plan Committee Lessons from the Second Continental Congress

As we prepare to celebrate the Declaration that marks the birth of this nation, it seems a good time to reflect on some lessons from that experience that hold true even today.

Inertia is a powerful force.

By the time the Second Continental Congress convened, the “shot heard round the world” had already been fired at Lexington, but many of the representatives in Philadelphia still held out hope for some kind of peaceful reconciliation. Little wonder that, even in the midst of hostilities, there was a strong inclination on the part of several key individuals to put things back the way they had been, to patch them over, rather than to take on the world’s most accomplished military force.

As human beings we are largely predisposed to leave things the way they are, rather than making abrupt and dramatic change. Whether this “inertia” comes from a fear of the unknown, a certain laziness about the extra work that might be required, or a sense that advocating change suggests an admission that there was something “wrong” before, it seems fair to say that plan sponsors are, generally speaking, and in the absence of a compelling reason for change, inclined to rationalize staying put.

Little wonder that we often see new fund options added, while old and unsatisfactory funds linger on the plan menu, a general hesitation to undertake an evaluation of long-standing providers in the absence of severe service issues, and reluctance to adopt potentially disruptive (and, admittedly, often expensive) plan features like automatic enrollment or deferral acceleration.

While many of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were restricted by the entities that appointed them in terms of how they could vote on the issues presented, plan fiduciaries are bound by a higher obligation – that their decisions be made solely in the best interests of plan participants and their beneficiaries – regardless of any other organizational or personal obligations they may have outside their committee role.

Selection of committee members is crucial.

The Second Continental Congress was comprised of representatives from what amounted to 13 different governments, with delegates selected by processes ranging from extralegal conventions, ad hoc committees, to elected assemblies – with varying degrees of voting authority granted to them, to boot. Needless to say, that made reaching consensus even more complicated than under “ordinary” circumstances.

Today the process of putting together an investment or plan committee runs the gamut – everything from simply extrapolating roles from an organization chart to a random assortment of individuals to a thoughtful consideration of individuals and their qualifications to act as a plan fiduciary. But if you want a good result, you need to have the right individuals – and, certainly in the case of ERISA fiduciaries, if those individuals lack the requisite knowledge on a particular issue, they need to access that expertise from individuals who do.

Know that there are risks.

The men that gathered in Philadelphia that summer of 1776 came from all walks of life, but it seems fair to say that most had something to lose by signing on to a declaration of independence. True, many were merchants (some wealthy, including President of Congress John Hancock), and perhaps they could see a day when their actions would accrue to their economic benefit. Still, they could hardly have undertaken that declaration of independence without a very real concern that in so doing they might well have signed their death warrants. As Ben Franklin is said to have commented just before signing the Declaration, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

It’s not quite that serious for ERISA plan fiduciaries. However, there is the matter of personal liability – not only for your actions, but for those of your fellow fiduciaries – and thus, you might be required to restore any losses to the plan or to restore any profits gained through improper use of plan assets. So, it’s a good idea not only to know who your co-fiduciaries are – but to keep an eye on what they do, and are permitted to do.

It’s important to put it in writing.

While the Declaration of Independence technically had no legal effect, with the possible exception of the Gettysburg Address (which was heavily inspired by the former), its impact not only on the establishment of the United States, but as a social and political inspiration for many throughout the world is unquestioned, and perhaps unprecedented. Putting that declaration – and the sentiments expressed – in writing gave it a force and influence far beyond its original purpose.

Plan fiduciaries are sometimes cautioned (often by legal counsel) about committing to writing certain decisions, notably an investment policy statement. In fairness, the law does not require one, though ERISA basically anticipates that plan fiduciaries will conduct themselves as though they had one in place. And, generally speaking, plan sponsors (and the advisors they work with) find it easier to conduct the plan’s investment business in accordance with a set of established, prudent standards if those standards are in writing – rather than being crafted at a point in time when you are desperately trying to make sense of the markets. That said, and in the defense of caution, if there’s something worse than not having an IPS, it’s having an IPS that isn’t followed.

There is an old ERISA adage that says, “Prudence is process.” However, an updated version of that adage might be “prudence is process – but only if you can prove it.” To that end, a written record of the activities of plan committee(s) is an essential ingredient in validating not only the results, but also the thought process behind those deliberations. More significantly, those minutes can provide committee members – both past and future – with a sense of the environment at the time decisions were made, the alternatives presented and the rationale offered for each, as well as what those decisions were.

Those might not serve to inspire future generations – but they can be an invaluable tool in reassessing those decisions at the appropriate time(s) in the future and making adjustments as warranted – properly documented, of course.

Actions can speak louder than words.

As dramatic and inspiring as the words of the Declaration of Independence surely were (and are), if they never got beyond the document in which they appeared, it’s unlikely we’d be talking about them today. Indeed, it’s likely that, without the actions committed to in that Declaration, their signatures on the document would have only ensured that they wound up on the gallows.

Anyone who has ever had a grand idea shackled to the deliberations of a moribund committee, or who has had to kowtow to the sensibilities of a recalcitrant compliance department, can empathize with the process that produced the Declaration of Independence we’ll commemorate this week.

While plan committee meetings may sometimes seem like little more than obligatory (and tedious) reviews of arcane information, it’s worth remembering that those decisions affect people’s lives – and, ultimately, their financial independence.

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