National Journal

By Billy House
December 8, 2014

As lawmakers pressed Monday to finalize the legislative language of a must-pass omnibus spending bill, labor unions and retiree groups were mobilizing to defeat what they are characterizing as a lame-duck sneak attack on the pensions of some already-retired workers.

At issue is an effort led by Reps. John Kline and George Miller, the top Republican and Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, to bring reforms to troubled multiemployer pensions. The exact language of the proposal had not yet been announced, and it was not clear whether House leaders had in fact decided whether it would be attached to the spending bill.

But the lawmakers and staffers were working on such a proposal through the weekend. And it was widely expected on Monday that it would give multiemployer plan trustees the ability to cut benefits of already-retired workers or widows to help shore up some of the plans.

Cutting retirees’ benefits—while their plans are still solvent—is now illegal under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, which governs private pensions. However, the latest annual report of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation showed that while a majority of the approximately 1,400 multiemployer plans are adequately funded, between 10 and 15 percent of these plans could run out of money in the next 20 years.

Few disagree that something needs to be done. But there are stark disagreements about whether one of the solutions should be to let still-solvent plans balance their books on retired workers.

Aides to both Kline and Miller gave a joint statement confirming that a solution to the pension problem is being discussed in the final days of the lame duck, but they did not provide precise details of a plan. Miller himself is leaving Congress at the close of this session.

“Members are still discussing the details about a possible legislative solution to the multiemployer pension crisis and remain hopeful Congress will act before the end of the year. Any decisions regarding how a possible solution might move through the legislative process will be made by leadership at the appropriate time,” the statement said.

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