This editorial originally appeared in The Washington Post.
It looks like no holiday miracle for the nation’s multi-employer pension plans, which are facing financial disaster with potentially dire effects for nearly 1.3 million workers. Congress considered adding a rescue to the year-end spending bill but ultimately decided to punt, not counting a plan backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and the Senate delegation of West Virginia that would channel hundreds of millions of dollars per year into the coal miners’ health and retirement funds.
What to do with the many other defined-benefit pensions covering unionized workers of entire industries remains unsettled. Decades ago, when they were formed, these plans seemed like a good way to spread risks and benefits across trucking, coal, commercial baking and other industries; and it did not seem dangerous to insure them through the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (PBGC). Then came economic upheaval. Today, 125 of the 1,400 plans are expected to be insolvent within the next two decades, including the Teamsters’ Central States Pension Fund, due to collapse by 2025. Yet the PBGC has assets of just $2.9 billion to cover insured liabilities of $68 billion, as of Sept. 30.
The only way out is bipartisan compromise, but the Democratic-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate are pursuing different solutions. In July, the House passed a bill that would essentially extend a federal bailout to the 157 worst-performing multi-employer plans. To be sure, the aid is characterized as loans, but on terms so easy — 30 years, at the same interest rate the government pays, or, in some cases, less — as to be tantamount to a cash infusion. This would add $48.5 billion to the deficit over 10 years, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Two key Senate committee chairmen, Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., support a proposal that would protect both the pension plans and the PBGC, but fund the bailout in part through charging employers more for the PBGC insurance they receive and asking unions and retirees to kick in a “co-payment,” in return for not having to face even greater losses in case of PBGC insolvency. Direct grants would be available to support a finite number of retirees whose former employers had gone out of business and are no longer paying into the plans. For the rest, however, Grassley and Alexander rightly assume that, important as it may be to protect these pensioners, the burden on taxpayers — many of whom have no defined-benefit pension at all — must be limited.
Somewhere between the House and Senate approaches lies the solution, which will have to combine three ingredients: public funding, a contribution from beneficiaries themselves and structural reforms to the system. At one point, Congress came near adopting such a plan, per the recommendation of a joint, bipartisan House-Senate ad hoc committee. Lawmakers need to organize something similar again to get, at last, to yes; they are running out of years to waste.