Simplification Award FAQs

Q1. What are the primary criteria that will be used in evaluating submissions?

A: The College seeks submissions that identify specific statutory or regulatory simplification proposals that would improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the employee benefits system and that have a reasonable prospect of being enacted and implemented in the next decade or sooner. Submissions will be judged on three main criteria: (1) the benefits of simplification; (2) the originality of the proposal; and (3) the likelihood that the proposal can be enacted or implemented.

Q2. What changes have been made to simplify the Simplification Award process?

A: Beginning in 2020 the Simplification Award rules were streamlined substantially to make it easier for individuals to propose their simplification ideas. The changes include:

  • New Submission Template:
    There is now a template available for submissions. The template is designed to ensure that the applicant will consider all of the relevant criteria against which the proposal will be measured. Use of the template is strongly recommended, but not required. One purpose of the template is to emphasize that law review quality submissions are not required or expected. The goal of the competition is to encourage the development of ideas to simplify the employee benefits system. Submissions will be judged based on the quality of the idea and a demonstration that the proposal meets the criteria established for this Award. The template is available here.
  • Regulatory Simplification Proposals Now Included:
    In addition to statutory changes, the rules have been modified to also permit proposals that simplify regulations or other administrative guidance. See FAQs 4 & 5.
  • Statutory Language No Longer Required:
    The submission of detailed statutory language is no longer required, although it is still preferred. The submission must still identify which existing statutory (or now regulatory) provision(s) would need to be changed. See FAQ 8.
  • Financial Impact and Originality Requirements Modified:
    Proposals do not need to include a formal cost-benefit analysis, although some quantification of the benefits and costs of simplification is preferred. The originality criteria have been clarified and streamlined. See FAQ 4.

Q3. What guidance can you provide on why past submissions were deemed not to meet the criteria established for the Simplification Award?

A: The objective of the ACEBC Simplification Award is to encourage and recognize proposals that identify unnecessary complexity in the current laws or rules applicable to employee benefit plans. Accordingly, the Committee is looking for targeted simplification proposals that protect the rights of plan participants and have a reasonable possibility of being enacted or otherwise implemented. That is, in addition to protecting participants, proposals should not be likely to provoke opposition from employers and other plan sponsors.

In the past, a significant number of innovative and well-reasoned submissions were not deemed to satisfy the criteria for this competition because they involved active and heated ongoing controversies; suggested major policy shifts that were deemed to dominate any tangential simplification benefits; or both. Some of those policy shifts had been debated in the legislative or regulatory process or proposed by advocacy organizations. Although a suggestion of a major policy change will not, in and of itself, necessarily disqualify a submission, we note that it is very difficult for those types of proposals to meet the criteria established for this award. Almost any proposed change will, of course, have at least some tangential policy repercussions and we recommend that those policy consequences be specifically discussed as part of the submission.

Similarly, it is critical that submissions make a convincing demonstration that the changes will benefit (or at least not harm) plan participants and address any potential barriers to enactment or implementation. We also note that the competition’s criteria become progressively more difficult to satisfy when a submission includes multiple distinct proposed changes, any one of which might be deemed disqualifying. On the other hand, even a submission consisting of a single, narrow proposal will not be adequate if it fails to consider all of the specific statutory or regulatory modifications that are necessary to put the proposal into effect.

Q4: What is meant by "simplification"?

A: For purposes of this Award, simplification is intended to be broadly defined to include targeted and specific legislative or regulatory changes that would improve the employee benefits system (specifically in plans subject to ERISA or the tax code), such as the reduction of administrative costs or fees; increases in the availability or level of benefits; improving compliance; increasing understanding and appreciation of employee benefits; or in any other manner. This might entail eliminating redundant features or those that, as a practical matter, add little or no value, or substituting a detail that is easier to remember. It might involve introducing a new procedure that achieves the same goals with less work and expense. It could even be as straightforward as rewriting operative language to eliminate ambiguity.

For purposes of the ACEBC Simplification Award competition, a proposal is not generally considered to be a simplification proposal if the simplification benefits are merely secondary or incidental to a material change in the substance of a rule or policy.

In evaluating the benefits of a proposed simplification, submitters are asked to identify the costs and benefits to stakeholders, and, if possible, to quantify its net benefits. Moreover, submitters are required to address how their proposal will either enhance or, at the least, have no material impact on employee/participant rights. A proposal that would eliminate or significantly curtail employee/participant rights under other laws, such as civil rights or investor protection laws, will not be considered simplification even if it makes the operation of employee benefit plans easier.

Similarly, a proposal that would make the provision of employee benefits materially less attractive for employers and plan sponsors will fail this criterion, as well as the enactability test described below.

Q5: Is a proposal considered “original” if the general concept has been floated before, but not in legislative or regulatory form?

A: That will depend on the nature of the proposal. Originality is by its nature a difficult concept to define and, as a result, a proposal’s originality will be judged on a continuum. Proposals that are substantially similar to legislation that is currently pending before Congress would not be considered original. However, most existing employee benefit rules will have already been the subject of analysis by various parties, so the fact that a general concept has been previously floated in legislation, academic literature, or otherwise will not necessary mean a specific submission is not “original” if the authors provide a new, more detailed, or more convincing case for the suggested changes.

The fact that the authors have previously written on the subject or submitted articles for publication will not necessarily disqualify a proposal. Also, whether a proposal that grows out of a long-standing concept is “original” may depend on how much analysis and drafting is needed to reduce the concept to a legislative proposal. For example, a proposal to simplify a long-standing retirement-plan rule by simply repealing it would probably not be viewed as particularly “original”. On the other hand, a detailed proposal to redesign the same rule to make it easier to apply or administer without materially cutting back on the substantive policy objectives that the rule was intended to achieve would be viewed as more original. Similarly, a proposal that explains the reasons why a duplicative provision, rule, form, or reporting obligation should be deleted could be original.

If a proposal appears to have been offered as legislation in recent years the submission should explain why it should nevertheless be considered original. In the case of a proposed change to regulations, the person making the submission should review the discussion of comments published with the final rule in the Federal Register to see whether their proposal was raised while the regulation was being developed and, if so, why the original drafters rejected it. Again, the history will determine whether the proposal can be considered original. Why and how the simplification benefits are different now should be addressed in the application.

Q6: What if the person making the proposal does not realize that the proposal, or something very much like it, has been proposed in earlier years?

A: Submitters are asked to submit a statement certifying that, to the best of their knowledge and belief, the proposal is original, and to distinguish it from similar pre-existing ideas that have already been raised or discussed in the benefits community. This may be a matter of turning a general idea into a legislative proposal that is actionable, or it may be that the proposal presents a unique idea. The fact that an Award Committee or Board of Governors member has a memory of something similar having been suggested years ago will not disqualify a proposal, but this is likely to be a matter of degree.

In general, a proposal that had been floated more than five or six years earlier can still be considered original if the person making the proposal was not familiar with the earlier proposal.

Q7: What is meant by the enactability criterion?

A: The basic criterion is that there should be a reasonable prospect of the proposal being enacted and implemented in the next decade or sooner. As with originality, this criterion will be judged on a continuum. The author is encouraged to describe how the proposal is likely to be received by Hill staff and officials of relevant agencies and the basis for that description. Proposals that – in the judgment of the Committee or the Board of Governors – would generate controversy or be opposed by stakeholders will rank lower on this criterion. So would proposals to make sweeping changes in fundamental laws or systems.

Q8: How closely must a proposal conform to legislative or regulatory style and format?

A: To be eligible for the Award, a proposal must be accompanied by a detailed description of the legislative or regulatory provisions that would be modified as an amendment to pertinent legislation or offer a viable new legislative proposal. Thus, legislative language embodying the proposal – including revisions to various rules that would be secondarily affected – must be included in the submission. Nevertheless, an entry will not be judged on how closely it conforms to the idiosyncratic formatting rules followed by House and Senate Legislative Counsel. What is important is that the submission demonstrate that the concepts have been thought through in enough detail to show that the people proposing it understand the technical details and implications. Whether or not the proposal could, as it stands, be acted upon as formal legislative or regulatory language, it must describe the changes carefully enough so that policy makers and their staff can make informed judgments about their likely effect.

For example, a proposal that would require changes to both ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code would fall short if it only addresses one of those statutes, but so long as it identifies the need for comparable changes where the laws overlap and generally cites the provisions where the overlaps occur, it need not necessarily walk through every point at which identical modifications would be needed in both of them.

The submission should identify the proposed effective date and any associated transition rules. It should also list the substantive (i.e., not definitional) regulations that would have to be added or modified if the proposal is adopted.

Q9. Should a proposal cover all of the possible impacts of or limitations on a simplification concept?

A: A proposal should describe its intended coverage fully, for instance, whether, in order to be effective, it would need or likely prompt changes in laws outside of employee benefits, such as financial regulation or equal employment rules. On the other hand, if the proposed changes are not universally appropriate, the proposal should identify their limits. For instance, should they apply to both pension and profit-sharing plans? Multiemployer, governmental, and tax-exempt organizations’ plans, as well as standard corporate plans? If an otherwise attractive proposal might be problematic for a distinct part of the employee benefits universe, that should be identified and an exclusion included.

Q10: The rules indicate that the benefits of the simplification proposal should be quantified. Does that mean budgetary cost estimates or a detailed cost/benefit analysis must be included?

A: No. The College does not expect formal budgetary analyses like those performed by the Joint Committee on Taxation or the Congressional Budget Office or a cost/benefit analysis like those required by the Office of Management and Budget. Submissions are, however, asked to describe the net benefits of proposed changes and the factors that would go into measuring them. This should include identification of likely cost savings or cost increases to plan sponsors, participants, the government, or other stakeholders.

Q11: What are the procedures for submissions with multiple authors?

A: Informal groups of individuals are welcome to collaborate on a submission. A group must identify all individuals collaborating on a submission and must designate one individual as the lead contact. Because no information identifying the author or authors should be included in any submission, the name, email address, mailing address, and telephone number of each author should also be provided in the cover email to the submission. The Award will be paid to the lead contact, unless otherwise specified by the group. [See below for discussion of travel expenses.]

Q12: Will the Award winner be reimbursed for expenses to travel to the annual dinner?

A: Yes, in accordance with the College’s existing procedures, reasonable and customary travel expenses (including travel, up to two night’s hotel, and meals) will be reimbursed for the Award recipient. If there are multiple authors, expenses will only be reimbursed for the lead contact identified when the submission was made, unless another author is specified by the group.

Q13: Is an Award winner required to attend the annual dinner in order to receive the Award?

A: No.

Q14: Preparation of a compelling competition entry can be very time consuming and some potential contestants may be reluctant to submit an entry without an assurance that they have a realistic possibility of winning the contest. Could the contest procedure be modified to allow the author(s) to request a pre-submission evaluation of the merit of the basic idea?

A: The Committee appreciates the significant effort necessary for any individual to make a submission in the Simplification Award competition. However, we do not believe it would be appropriate to pre-judge or provide feedback without seeing a full submission. There will certainly be situations in which an idea that, on its face, does not seem promising, turns out upon fuller treatment to be an exciting idea, and vice versa. In any event, the Simplification Award process aims to encourage the development of as many new and achievable simplification ideas as possible. Each year, submissions are judged based on the criteria identified in the rules of the competition. Potential applicants are urged to consider the merit of their proposals based on those criteria and, where appropriate, author(s) should specifically address how their proposal satisfies those criteria.

Of course, in any given year more than one submission may have merit, but one in particular may be deemed superior to the others based on the criteria established for this particular competition. That judgement is necessarily subjective and is arrived at through the deliberation of a Simplification Award Committee which is composed of a cross-section of Fellows in the College. The fact that one submission is ultimately selected for the Award does not necessarily mean that the other submissions made in a particular year were without merit. Individuals who have submitted in prior years are encouraged to resubmit their original or modified submissions. Moreover, consistent with the purpose of the College to advance the public's understanding of the practice of employee benefits law, authors who believe in the merits of their simplification proposals are encouraged to consider other avenues for placing their ideas in the public domain, e.g., through publication.