If there is anything the debt-ridden federal government does not need, it is to get involved in another big bail-out of some ailing industry.
Yet that's precisely what some members of Congress are seeking in response to the recent woes of the insurance industry.Alarm signals went off in Washington after the collapse of the California and New York life insurance units of First Executive Corp. Some lawmakers started worrying that the insolvency of one big firm might cause other insurers to start falling like dominoes.
So now the Senate Commerce Committee and the General Accounting Office are thinking about getting the federal government into the act. One suggestion involves wider federal regulation of the insurance industry. Another contemplates the creation of a federal insurance fund to protect customers not covered entirely by state guaranty funds that pay claims on behalf of failed insurance firms.
But Washington should go slow on those suggestions. The federal government already has more than enough on its plate with the bailout of the savings and loan industry, a scandal that may cost the taxpayers $500 billion over 40 years. Next in line is banking. The failure of some 600 banks the past six years has left the banking industry's federal insurance fund looking at the threat of insolvency and Congress looking at the possibility of dipping into the U.S. Treasury for $6 billion to $9 billion.
Instead, Congress should give state regulators a chance to deal with the insurance industry's problems. Already, state regulators around the country are requiring more detailed classification of insurers' bond investments - hoping to spot the risky ones. Other steps toward tighter state regulation are also in the works, including better surveillance to spot potentially troubled insurance firms.
Besides, anyone who thinks that federal regulation is always the answer simply hasn't learned much from the savings and loan debacle.