IT ISN'T SUPPOSED to be dignified for lawyers to chase ambulances, but chasing law-makers, when what is at issue is a large chunk of the law business, is apparently quite acceptable in the trade. As a Herblock cartoon noted so well the other day, the thousands of lawyers whose practice is built upon the risks of driving an automobile can be counted on to swarm all over Congress on short notice whenever no-fault insurance bills are up for consideration. Right now, the no-fault issue is before Congress, and, sure enought, the lawyers are all over the place, dispensing big money, political influence - and generous servings of balcony - in another spare-no-expense effort to kill a sensible no-fault bill.
According to a report this week by Washington Post staff writer Spencer Rich, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America - whose 34,000 members include those who bring virtually every lawsuit in the nation having to do with auto accidents - has been waging a strong, well-financed campaign. Last year, the association's political fund, called the Attorneys' Congressional Campaign Trust, collected $439,000 in contributions form lawyers and distributed $315,000 to members of Congress in campaign donations. So far this year, the association has accumulated $128,000.
Now, there's nothing necessarily wrong with the amounts of money involved here, especially if you consider how much lawyers pocket in fees from automobile-injury cases. The association's president says it's about $300 million: a 1971 Department of Transportation study estimates that it's more like $1 billion. What's more interesting is the pattern of the campaign contributions. As the news report noted, "the roster of recipients looks like an honor rool of the House Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the no-fault bill, plus a quarter of the Senate and many other House members." The lawyer-lobbyists oppose genuine no-fault legislation because they know full well what a sound no-fault law would do - namely, wipe out the vast number of lawsuits and allow victims to collect automatically from their own insurance companies on most personal injuries. The premiums people pay to insurance companies on most personal injuries. The premiums people pay to insurance companies could then be put to use for swift, direct compensation instead of for needless, time-consuming litigation, red tape and excessive legal fees.
That's precisely why more and more consumer groups, insurance companies, premium-payers and accident victims are calling for passage of federal minimum no-fault insurance standards. This year, the administration also strongly supports the no-fault effort in Congress. And now a citizens' group is organizing to push for enactment of a bill. Though this new coalition may not enjoy nearly the financial support behind the effort to kill no-fault, sensitive members of the Senate and House should recognize that their constituents are sick of America's insurance sess - and of the lawyers's lame excuses for it. The debate has already gone on for too many years. Congress should enact the no-fault bill in this session.