Sherrod Brown and Democrats have a plan to save pensions. Now Congress must decide if it’s a rescue or a bailout
Sherrod Brown and Democrats have a plan to save pensions. Now Congress must decide if it’s a rescue or a bailout
WASHINGTON -- Ohio U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and top Democratic leaders want to lend billions of dollars to troubled pension plans. The pension managers could take some of the money and pay former truck drivers, ironworkers, coal miners, clerks, bakers and confectioners their monthly retirement checks.
Pension managers could invest the rest so their funds become solvent over time. The government could recoup a lot of its money in 30 years -- but probably not all of it.
To skeptics, this seems like a government bailout full of risks. Rachel Greszler, a Heritage Heritage Foundation research fellow, recently said it sounds like “bottomless bailouts” and “a recipe for disaster.” These troubled pension obligations, after all, could eventually top $600 billion.
To retirees who fear losing their pensions, it sounds like a plan to give American workers the same kind of consideration Congress and presidents gave Wall Street banks, Detroit automakers and underwater homeowners after the financial crash of 2007-2008.
“These workers are not asking for a handout,” Brown said Wednesday at press conference with union retirees, labor leaders including Teamsters president James Hoffa, and congressional colleagues including House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer. “They’re simply saying to us to live up to the promise that’s been made to them.”
Brown acknowledges that his Butch Lewis Act -- named in honor of a Cincinnati-area trucker and Purple Heart, Vietnam War veteran who died from a stroke while fighting pension cuts -- could cost money. But he says a taxpayer bailout will be needed eventually anyway, and his plan will be a lot cheaper.
“If we don’t meet these pension obligations today, they’re going to cost the government a whole lot more tomorrow,” agreed Schumer in remarks on the Senate floor Tuesday.
Pension plans provide a monthly income to retirees. The payments are seen as an employee benefit -- a promise of a decent retirement in exchange for years of worker loyalty -- but in many cases workers contributed to the pension funds as well.
The pension funds invest the companies’ and workers’ contributions, use the earnings and continuing contributions to write monthly checks to retirees, and on and on the cycle goes. But this hasn’t always worked out as planned, a result of demographic, workplace and financial challenges. When that happens, there is more money owed to retirees than there is money to pay.
One particular kind of pension plan, called a multi-employer plan, has faced a double whammy.
These are plans that cover workers for a number of companies that share a common interest, such as union membership or a particular occupation or trade. In some cases, their membership has aged and their current workforces are too small to keep up with obligations to retirees. They also lost a lot of money in the last crash; in the case of the Teamsters’ Central States pension plan, Wall Street firms were accused of mismanagement and excessive risk-taking.
More than 200 multi-employer plans are at risk of insolvency, affecting retirement benefits for 1.5 million participants, Democrats say. With approval from the Treasury Department, which has oversight of these matters, Local 17 of the Iron Workers Union in Cleveland has already reached the point of cutting retiree payments, a sacrifice the pension trustees said was necessary to save the overall plan for both current and future retirees. Current retirees had hoped Congress would intervene with a rescue, but it didn’t.
The much bigger Teamsters Central States Fund is likely to run out of enough money to fully pay its retirees within 10 years. It has 400,000 members, with nearly 48,000 of them in Ohio, making them the largest share of workers and retirees at risk.
Like the Iron Workers local, Central States managers petitioned the Treasury Department to make immediate payment cuts as part of a broad proposal to achieve solvency, but Treasury rejected the request last year, saying it wasn’t convinced Central States could survive even if it reduced retirees’ checks. Teamster retirees were relieved, since their monthly incomes were spared. But they know something must be done or their pension fund will go broke.
The Butch Lewis Act would create a new federal agency, called the Pension Rehabilitation Administration, or PRA, to sell Treasury-issued bonds to private investors such as financial firms. It would use the proceeds to issue low-interest, 30-year loans, giving the money to troubled multi-employer pension funds that could demonstrate a longterm plan to avoid insolvency.
The pension funds would put much of the money in safe investments such as bonds and similar fixed-income investments to start rebuilding their reserves. They also could use some of the money to make good on current pension payments, if needed.
For the first 29 years, the pension funds would only have to pay interest on the loans. The principal would come due in year 30.
This would not totally alleviate the need for additional help, Brown and others including Ohio Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur say. The federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., or PBGC, which assures limited payments for private pension plans that go broke, might have to be tapped occasionally, too.
The PBGC gets its money from premiums paid by employers. It has its own, separate fund to help out multi-employer pension plans -- but that fund also has financial challenges, because too many multi-employer pension plans are going to want to tap into it. In fact, the PBGC projects its multi-employer fund will run out of money by the end of 2025.
In other words, the very government pool that’s supposed to rescue the troubled multi-employer plans is in trouble.
Brown’s bill could relieve that pressure on the PBGC, supporters say. They say that under this plan, there would be no run on the PBGC as it is currently strucured.
First, the bill would require that any money paid from the PBGC to cover these multi-employer plan obligations come from Congress -- through spending bills -- rather than from the current, employer-provided PBGC premiums and reserves.
And between the loans provided by the new government agency (so pension plans could both invest and pay their retirees) and the occasional appropriations (for the PBGC so it doesn’t have to pay its existing funds to the point of going broke), the PBGC could stay solvent.
The money questions:
This would have a cost. What would it be?
No figures have been released, and Brown’s office is waiting for a Congressional Budget Office analysis.
Conservatives from outside groups aren’t convinced taxpayers won’t lose substantial sums.
“These plans strike me as deliberately complicated,” Andrew Biggs, a resident scholar who studies pension and retirement issues at the American Enterprise Institute, said in an email.
He said a simpler strategy would first shift current employees in troubled multi-employer plans “to well-designed 401(k) plans,” which many other employers have done. Then the multi-employer pension plans could figure out how much of the benefits that have already been accrued should be paid, and work with the federal government to figure out how much the government has to pay. That could be clearly calculated, unlike a 30-year, multi-part, loan-and-bailout plan.
“It’s going to cost a lot of money, but people should know that from the get-go,” Biggs said,
Similarly, Greszler, at the Heritage Foundation, wrote last week that although the $600 billion in unfunded pension promises “are terrible news” for workers, they “should not also be terrible news for taxpayers who had no role in making those promises. Yet, that is exactly the case with the proposed bill.”
And Charles Blahaus, at the free-market-oriented Mercatus Center and Hoover Institution, wrote this week that the PBGC should look for ways to shore up the system -- but taxpayers should “not be left holding the bag for benefits most of them are not eligible to receive.”
If nothing is done:
Brown and other Butch Lewis Act supporters say the critics ignore something: The cost of inaction or limited action could cost taxpayers much more.
That’s because if nothing is done, the troubled multi-employer plans will draw down all they can from the PBGC, which will only pay a fraction of the retirees’ expected income, and then the PBGC will be insolvent, as projected already.
At that point, two more things will happen, Democrats say.
First, there could be demand for a PBGC bailout with taxpayer money.
Second, the employers in the multi-employer plans will still be on the hook for billions in current and future pension obligations. These won’t just disappear. And they could force companies into bankruptcy.
The cost in lost jobs, lost profits, lost taxes and higher government aid to the jobless could be staggering, Democrats say. They have not released an estimate of how staggering, but to give an example of how things could ripple, they said that in just one year, 2015, workers in companies that participate in multi-employer pensions earned $241 billion in wages and pension benefits and paid more than $43.4 billion in federal, state and local taxes.
Furthermore, the cost of backstopping the PBGC’s multi-employer claims over 21 years -- if Congress would even agree to it -- would come to $101 billion, Democrats said, citing a 2016 CBO analysis of the PBGC’s multi-employer obligations.
“There’s nowhere near the liability that’s going to be dumped on them if something isn’t done,” Mike Walden, a retired truck driver from Cuyahoga Falls, said about Congress.
He and other retirees are walking the corridors of Congress this week to explain this to lawmakers.
What will happen:
Brown, Schumer and Pelosi say they want to get the Butch Lewis Act included in a year-end spending bill. But several people involved in the discussions acknowledge their best hope is to push for it early next year.
Any action will depend on Republican support, which could be difficult to get. Teamsters note that their union supported the reelection of Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, over his Democratic challenger, former Gov. Ted Strickland, last year. They say they don’t expect a quid pro quo, but they expect Portman to listen -- and they say Portman seems willing to hear them out.
A Portman spokesman said the senator is reviewing the proposal and discussing it with Brown and others.
“Let’s see somebody cross the aisle,” Walden, the former trucker, said of Republicans. “Once somebody crosses the aisle, we’ll see others.”
Greg Smith, a retired trucking clerk and Teamster from Norton, Ohio, is likewise pushing for GOP support. He suggested that if his congressman, Rep. Jim Renacci, of Wadsworth, got behind the Butch Lewis Act, union members could propel Renacci’s candidacy for governor.
“We’re begging him” to support the bill, Smith said.
Renacci understands the pensioners’ plight, his office says. Whether he’ll get behind Brown’s bill is another thing.
“The congressman agrees it is important that something is done to fix the Central States Pension Fund and has worked with stakeholders to try to find a consensus,” Renacci’s spokeswoman, Kelsey Knight, said. “There are numerous proposals to address this crisis and the congressman hopes that an agreement can be met that prevents these pension plans from going insolvent while also protecting taxpayer dollars.”
It is that latter part on which the parties disagree. Part of it is from deeply held fiscal beliefs. But part of it, Smith says, is a factor of partisan politics.
“It’s a bit impossible for any Republican to sign on to anything Democrats do,” he said, “especially something sponsored by Sherrod Brown.”